TWO years ago Republicans decided to hold their 2020 convention (RNC) in Charlotte, North Carolina. That made sense: in recent cycles, parties have tended to hold conventions in swing states they would like to retain. In 2016, for instance, Republicans held their convention in Ohio, which Barack Obama and George W. Bush both won twice, while Democrats held theirs in Pennsylvania. North Carolina’s electoral votes over the past three cycles have gone to Mr Obama, Mitt Romney (both in squeakers) and Donald Trump, but the influx of voters to the state’s major cities and its growing Latino population make Republicans nervous.
On June 2nd Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic governor, told Republican grandees that he wanted “a safe RNC convention in Charlotte” that follows CDC health guidelines. That proved unacceptable to Mr Trump, who always loves a packed, cheering house. So he decided to move the big speeches to Jacksonville, in the Trump-friendly northern part of Florida. On July 23rd, however, with covid-19 ravaging the state, Mr Trump abruptly cancelled his Jacksonville coronation, explaining, “We won’t do a big, crowded convention…it’s just not the right time for that.” From a public-health perspective, he is clearly correct. But his point also holds true politically: conventions are occasionally entertaining spectacles that have evolved past their original purpose and may have also outlived their utility.
For most of American history, the purpose of a party convention was to choose the nominee and hash out the platform. Conventions replaced clubby, insular caucuses of congressmen who would decide among themselves whom their party should put forth for president and vice-president. They were thus a move toward greater participatory democracy. Andrew Jackson, in 1835, said that he considered “the true policy of the friends of republican principles to send delegates, fresh from the people, to a general convention, for the purpose of selecting candidates.” Conventions required delegates to openly declare their choice.
The first was held in 1831 by the Anti-Masonic Party—formed, as the name suggests, to combat Freemasonry, in the late 1820s. It succeeded in choosing a candidate, William Wirt, who was a longtime United States attorney-general, and also, oddly, a former Mason deeply sympathetic to Freemasonry. In the 1832 election, he carried a single state (Vermont), while Andrew Jackson, the Democrat, took 16 and the Republican, Henry Clay, six. Traditionally, nominees skipped the conventions, for fear of appearing immodest; the first to show up was Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932.
They could be raucous, hard-fought affairs. In 1924, for instance, the Democratic convention was deadlocked for 16 days and 103 ballots between Al Smith, the governor of New York, who would become the first Catholic nominee for a major party four years later, and William McAdoo, Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law and treasury secretary, who won the support of, among others, the staunchly anti-Catholic (among other antis) Ku Klux Klan. With little room for compromise between the two, eventually delegates settled on a compromise candidate, John W. Davis, a diplomat, lawyer and former congressman from West Virginia whom Calvin Coolidge trounced in the general election.
Conventions grew less raucous as television became more important. In 1964 Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination despite staunch opposition from moderates, whom Goldwater supporters loathed. Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball, supported the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller. After the convention he said he understood “how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany”. Four years later, police fought anti-Vietnam-war demonstrators outside the Democrats’ convention in Chicago. The images helped Richard Nixon cement his appeal as the law-and-order candidate.
Starting in 1912 the parties moved towards even greater citizen participation by introducing primaries. At first they were non-binding—in essence a gauge of public opinion for party insiders to consider when choosing a candidate at the convention. But by the early 1970s they had become determinative. During hard-fought primary contests political journalists work themselves into a frenzy hoping for a contested convention, and occasionally a challenger hopes for a black swan—Teddy Kennedy battling Jimmy Carter in 1980, or Ronald Reagan challenging Gerald Ford in 1976—but conventions have been fundamentally drama-free boondoggles for more than half a century.
That is not to say they have been pointless. Political junkies and journalists may, by convention time, be plodding wearily through mile 23 of a marathon, but the general public is not: conventions provide a national stage to introduce the candidate. They let the party tell the candidate’s story and frame the election. They are advertisements, in other words, more than decision-making forums.
This year, however, the general public knows both candidates well: Joe Biden because he has been in national politics since 1972, and Mr Trump because he has been fervently seeking public attention, in one form or another, for almost as long. They need no introduction. Fights over the party’s platform provide the one microdot of drama, but even that has been obviated this year. Republicans voted simply to retain the 2016 platform, and Mr Biden’s campaign, cognisant of the fights between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton four years ago, has been crafting policy for months with Mr Sanders’s supporters.
The parties still have to nominate their candidates formally, but that is easily done, and will be drama-free for both sides—Republicans because the party is now defined by personal fealty to Mr Trump and his family, and Democrats because their desire to oust Mr Trump outweighs any other consideration. There is simply no justification for mass gatherings during a pandemic.
The more interesting question is whether the parties will return to the full four-day, cocktail-party and networking convention in 2024. Like Cadillac Escalades, party conventions are big, cumbersome, wasteful and fundamentally pointless. The balance of power in both parties is with voters, not elites; and social media have made the standard prime-time speeches vestigial and archaic. But people still buy Escalades. And in four years’ time, politicos will probably be unable to resist the chance to gather by the thousands, trading war stories over hotel-bar beers and feeling, however inaccurately, that they are at least near the centre of the political universe.
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