Potemkin Conventions: Why Are We Doing This Again?

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News reports for Tropical Storm Isaac appear on screens ahead of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Florida on Aug. 26, 2012

Remind me: Why are we doing this?

That was the question bouncing around in my head after I spent my first 24 hours in Tampa on increasingly soggy ground. The twin horrors of Tropical Storm Isaac and the Nielsen ratings have already combined to wipe out Monday night’s planned activities, and you know what? Nobody cares.

(PHOTOS: The Romney-Ryan Road Trip to Tampa)

Political conventions are over. Once, they meant something. I’d leap into the most terrifying of time machines to attend an old-school political convention with armies of local pols battling it out under a thick cloud of blue tobacco smoke in a stuffy convention hall, while the string-pulling bosses cut pragmatic deals over whiskey and judicial appointments in lavish hotel suites. Those conventions had drama because outcomes were unknown and stakes were high. Today delegates are bound through the application of TV-ad-ratings points, not machine deals. Delegates sit in the hall like background actors on a TV show, milling about to the director’s orders, wearing costumes and being denied a single line. It seems like a shabby ending to a great tradition. It’s time for a mercy killing.

(MORE: The Party of No: New Details on the GOP Plot to Obstruct Obama)

Sure, these conventions are an economic godsend to party planners, podium constructors and local police for the overtime. All this activity creates a powerful inertia, which is why the Conventions Inc. industry of both parties has united to keep the event unchanged for years. But should they change it? I love eating Bloomberg’s free food and taking a free National Railroad Ties and Trestles Association hat as much as anyone, and I respect convention staff members for being pros who work very hard. But one must ask: Does all this money and effort and schmooze and confetti really do much to win a campaign? I’m dubious.

Of course, a candidate’s acceptance speech is a huge deal, with a big audience and a potentially powerful impact. Along with the three fall debates, the convention speech is one of the four most important hours of an entire campaign.

(MORE: RNC Cover Story: The Mind of Mitt)

So keep the two big TV speeches. But do we really need four days — three if you decide to hold a convention in the Gulf during hurricane season — to get there? Do we really need the droning speech by the guy who lost or the first-ever Laotian American state representative or the union howler who is a teleprompter for predictable outrage over the other party’s entitlement plan? Why not cut the conventions down to the commercials they are and focus on the stars? Why not focus on two tight prime-time hours, held on one night or even across two nights? Hour one: Stinkerfest, why the other guy is so horrible (maybe in 3-D for 2016!). Hour two: the ticket is introduced and the candidates speak. Balloons drop, the nation is saved, back to the campaign trail. The supersize four-day conventions made great sense in 1920.

But it’s time for an update.

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16 comments
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Boy Bib
Boy Bib

Romney proves in Tampa what we discovered in London.

 "Romney goes down like a cup of warm sick"

Boy Bib
Boy Bib

Debt Clock...how cutting edge...if you are Ross Perot, LAST CENTURY

labman57
labman57

National conventions are like Spring Break with a dash of pomp, proselytizing, and propaganda thrown in.

Boy Bib
Boy Bib

RNC convention is like Spring Break, 

littered with spent condoms, and people you'd never do sober.

anon76returns
anon76returns

I seem to remember a pretty important speech being given at the 2004 Democratic convention by a Senatorial candidate with a funny name.  That speech doesn't fit into any of Murphy's categories of 'important stuff' that should be kept, and yet it has had a profound effect on the current trajectory of our democracy.  Just sayin'.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

The hurricane coverage is more interesting than the convention.  And what do all those arrows mean? 

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

I thought the thing that stopped the smoke filled back room type of convention (apart from the surgeon general) was having countless months worth of primaries so that more people actually voted for the candidate of their party as opposed to having the pols pick the candidate.

I remember watching conventions when the nominee was picked there. They were indeed exciting - which state would send which candidate over the top? I remember when several ballots were required to pick a nominee.

On the whole it's probably better to have a more democratic process. I can't imagine people wanting to go back to the old system.

You have some pretty good points, but conventions as they are now raise the profile and give the nominee a chance to say whatever they want - even lie - with no rebuttal, so that it seems more genuine than a commercial.

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

Holding elections on Tuesdays once made sense, too.

And Daylight Saving [sic] Time.

And electoral college - well, maybe that makes a bit more sense.

NC doc
NC doc

Anachronisms all. Unless we all get the day off, voting on Tuesday sucks. When i was a surgery resident i almost never voted (working 4:30 am til 9 pm doesnt allow you to get to the polls).

reflectionephemeral
reflectionephemeral

As to the main issue here, you wrote, "one must ask: does all this money and effort and schmooze and confetti really does much to win the campaign? I’m dubious."

Well, that's begging the larger question of how much the campaign matters at all. (See here for a peek into the debate: "in counties where Obama aired 1,000 more ads than McCain, he received about 0.5% more of the vote than John Kerry did in those same counties").

And as for the larger context, you miss the excitement of conventions that "had drama because outcomes were unknown and stakes were high." Let's take that as true. But were they good for democracy? (Maybe you think they were, that more stakeholders were better represented. But we have to do the work to get to that conclusion). 

I quite like Boris_KGB's defense of conventions in the first comment on this thread, btw. I too am just throwing stuff out there. It'd be fun to see who's actually right!

Boris_KGB
Boris_KGB

All noted, and a pretty good point. But why not argue the other side of the coin? Due to TV and major media attention Conventions are no longer backroom deals. They are now nationally visible and covered events.

Sure, it might be scripted and directed for both the GOP and the Democratic Party, but it maybe gets some uninformed voters to pay attention for a bit. It's a big show, so it gets exposure nationally as opposed to locally like it was way back when in the "good old days".

Most voters are disengaged from the politcal process and far too often vote from ignorance. If a convention can raise enough hype, attention and news/media coverage the odds are you may just get more people thinking and voting with a bit more info under their belt.

Surely that's a good thing even if some of us are jaded political junkies and view it all as a carefully scripted performance?

Conventions get news juice, it recycles 'till the election, so there will be a bit more info out there for uninformed voters to vote more to their interests.

Yes, it's all a farce for us junkies, but I think it serves at least a small purpose so why advocate dumping them?

And as you say, overtime for cops, jobs for security staff, builders, firemen etc. You could call them mini stimulus pakages, jobs and money lol    

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

I've heard that thorough election watchers think this election is about 12 swing counties.  COUNTIES!

Beholdthejabberwock
Beholdthejabberwock

Color me skeptical. Are the uninformed Joe Sixpacks going to pay attention to this at all? Certainly, Democrats view it as a masturbatory exercise with no real merit. Republican hardliners are going to vote for the Republican candidate, so the RNC is largely a token gesture that, again, has no real merit. As for Independents, I suspect there are far fewer actual independents than most people care to admit; most people lean in a certain direction and vote accordingly. 

People sit up for the debates; they wake up from their haze long enough to watch the suits play Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots. But the conventions? I imagine most people who would or could think and vote "with a bit more info under their belt" are not actually going to pay attention.

Arimathean
Arimathean

Good points, and you've got me thinking.

I'd have to say that it'd be better to have obviously backdoor dealing rather than the illusion of true democracy.  Let your average Joe see how little his interests are represented.  Then we could have something like a real Tea Party, rather than a puppet of the Kochs.

Boris_KGB
Boris_KGB

Now that is an intersting thought! But, not that the national coverage is there, we see the media dig deeper and pop out some interesting and informative stories.

I figure these conventions are a catalyst of sorts. They force stories, investigations and bring forth information to us, the humble masses so to speak : )

Yeah, the conventions themselves are a scripted joke, but what can, and does flow out from them can be usefull dont you think?

Arimathean
Arimathean

Probably so.  I should be honest -- I don't watch convention or campaign speeches.  I prefer to wait until afterwards, see if the candidate said something new, and read the transcript if so.  For me, then, it works out about the same.  That being said, I think you have a good point about the focus brought to party and candidates.