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Salena Zito: Conventions' importance waning

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Off Road Politics connects Washington with Main Street hosted by Salena Zito and Lara Brown PhD. Exclusive radio show on @TribLIVE

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Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012, 9:09 p.m.

Editor's note: Salena Zito filed this column before heading to Tampa, where she'll be covering the Republican National Convention this week.

America's first political convention was held in Baltimore in 1832 by the little-known Anti-Masonic Party — which, oddly, nominated William Wirt, who once was a Mason.

The anti-Masons were a single-issue movement opposed to what then constituted Washington's establishment. While they did introduce the modern convention system, in which locally elected delegates choose state candidates with a pledge of loyalty, their party became extinct pretty darned quickly.

At the time, candidates typically were nominated by a caucus of members of Congress. When populist Andrew Jackson denounced the “corrupt bargain” among John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and the House, it kept him from the presidency in 1824 — but it pushed conventions into what they are today.

Over the next two weeks, Democrats and Republicans will continue the tradition of party conventions — Republicans this week in Tampa, Democrats immediately after Labor Day in Charlotte.

The question many experts ponder is, why?

“We used to pick nominees and vice presidents at them, but no longer,” said Clemson University political scientist David Woodard. To him, conventions are just “expensive extravaganzas that most Americans don't watch except one night — the Thursday-night speech of the party's nominee.”

Historical data show that conventions don't matter, according to Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia's iconic political scientist.

“Because of these late, back-to-back conventions with no drama, the audiences for convention coverage are going to be down overall,” he predicted. “Except for the hard partisans, few will ever see 90 percent of the convention speeches that so much is being made about.”

With the advent of several hundred cable-TV channels, Americans are not forced to watch conventions as in decades past. Baby boomers grew up with gavel-to-gavel coverage on all three broadcast networks, with no alternatives except going out to a movie or watching reruns of “Your Show of Shows” on the local VHF channel.

Sabato said he cannot imagine that political parties will continue holding extremely expensive, weeklong conventions for much longer. “The Democrats have already cut a full day off the schedule,” he noted.

And, as the broadcast networks continue to cut back coverage, public interest will continue to wane, he said, “unless we have a super-close primary finish like 1976's Gerry Ford-Ronald Reagan race that temporarily revives the original purpose of a convention.”

With today's 50-50 partisan split in politics, many Americans will tune in to cheer for their team. The debates, however, are more likely to draw voters who have not been following politics as religiously as the loyalists do.

The 2012 election is mainly a battle between the two party bases, said Sabato. “The job of each party is to enthuse the base, contact them repeatedly in myriad ways, and make sure they vote.”

The relatively small number of undecideds who actually do make a decision late in the campaign and turn out to vote will split between the two candidates, he predicted.

Sabato said those undecideds do not move en masse to one side. And, except in a very close election, they do not decide the results.

The political Kremlinologists of the press are analyzing the speakers' line-up for both conventions as though those actually mattered. Yet, for every aspiring politician such as Barack Obama, whose keynote speech at the Democrats' 2004 convention launched him nationally, there are a hundred other speakers who will have no impact at all.

Even Bill Clinton, as a young Arkansas governor, was a dud with his first convention speech to Democrats in 1988. Attendees cheered at the end of his long, rambling performance because it was finally over, not because they were inspired.

Next week, Clinton is slated to come back as a bit of a savior for the Obama convention, in an effort to help stop the bleeding-away from the president of frustrated Democrats.

OK, his speech may be a big hit in the convention hall, and he may well make a good case for Obama's re-election, said Sabato. “But how many extra votes does that win, with the convention mainly watched by partisans and a big football game competing for audience?”

Clinton's appearance may simply remind Americans of how much better things were for them economically in the 1990s, as contrasted to today.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or

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