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What’s a Convention For, Any More?

by Robert David Johnson on Jul 6, 2004

A few weeks ago, John Kerry considered delaying acceptance of the presidential nomination until after the Democratic convention. The Massachusetts senator ultimately rejected the idea, but his even considering it raised yet again the question of what role political conventions serve.

Conventions once were the high point of drama in the political world. The Democratic convention of 1960 opened with the nominee’s identity uncertain; at previous conventions, delegates, voting their conscience, often went through many ballots before choosing a nominee. They thrashed out other important issues as well. In 1964, Democrats debated the seating of segregated state delegations. In 1968 at Chicago, the Democrats battled over the party’s stance on the Vietnam War. And in 1980, the Republicans, for the first time, inserted an anti-abortion plank into their party platform.

Procedural changes designed to allow the voters rather than the party bosses to select presidential nominees changed the character of conventions. Now, all important issues relating to procedures and the platform are decided well in advance. By 1976, the rules of both parties ensured that the rank and file chose the vast majority of convention delegates, through either primaries or caucuses. In practice, the current primary system has maximized the role of money and momentum.

This year, conventions were almost completely removed from the selection of a nominee. For all practical purposes, John Kerry captured the nomination last January by securing 38 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. He then turned that victory into fundraising success and evidence of his electability in a primary calendar structured to ensure that the party would make a prompt choice of its nominee.

A variety of suggestions exist for restoring excitement to the convention. One idea was to have Kerry allow the delegates to this year’s Democratic convention to choose the party’s vice-presidential nominee. But because of the growing importance of the vice presidency, the presidential nominee now asserts sole power to choose his or her running mate, both for political reasons and for the good of the country.

The last open convention occurred in 1956, when Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, seeking to jumpstart his doomed challenge to President Eisenhower, unexpectedly allowed the convention to select his running mate. Three formidable figures vied for the prize — Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, a two-time presidential candidate; his Volunteer State colleague Albert Gore, Sr., perhaps the last great Southern populist; and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, making his initial appearance in the national limelight. Kennedy came up just short of Kefauver but made contacts that served him well when he ran for the top spot in 1960. In fact, not receiving the vice-presidential nomination probably benefited Kennedy, since it spared him a slot on a losing ticket.

Stevenson’s gambit would not be feasible today. Nominees then wanted running mates who would balance the ticket; Kennedy’s 1960 selection of Lyndon Johnson, a moderate Southern Protestant, is the classic example. The last two presidents, however, have looked for vice-presidential candidates who would complement their campaign’s main themes. In 1992, Al Gore, like Bill Clinton, offered the image of a vigorous, moderate Democratic leader, sustaining the Democrats’ portrayal of George H.W. Bush as out of touch. In 2000, Dick Cheney, like George W. Bush, presented himself as a candidate who would talk straight to the American public, thereby bolstering GOP attacks on the Clinton-Gore administration for untrustworthiness. Since convention delegates are not privy to internal campaign strategy, if permitted they might choose a running mate who contradicted the themes planned for the campaign.

The 2004 campaign has featured some innovations in popular politics, usually involving the Internet — Howard Dean’s fundraising, moveon.org’s ability to highlight issues ignored by the mainstream media and the Bush campaign’s development of ads available only via e-mail. Yet the era of genuine grassroots participation in the national political process seems over, regardless of whether John Kerry announced his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, via e-mail or how events at this year’s party conventions unfold.


Robert David Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of "Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition" (1998) and a writer for the History News Service.