Salena Zito: Conventions' importance waning
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 email@example.com)
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Martin’s homer rescues Pirates in 4-2 victory over Brewers
- Highmark CEO keeps eyes ahead
- Norvelt homesteader skilled at repairs, golf
- Moore hopes to see red (zone) in Steelers debut
- Steelers notebook: Ravens DL fined for hit on Roethlisberger
- CDC backlog means W.Pa, likely won’t get respiratory virus diagnoses quickly
- FDA revises food safety rules due out next year
- The truth about the VA: Rank dereliction of duty
- Sears to close store at Century III Mall in West Mifflin
- Orders for Pittsburgh police hats soar with new uniform policy
- City’s plan for Strip flummoxes vendors