(Archive - Week of July 25, 2004)

National Conventions have changed over the years

Political parties gather every four years at political conventions sites to make their candidate official in the presidential race, and this has been the case since the 1800s.

Political conventions were not used to nominate presidential candidates in the early decades of the Republic. Members of Congress selected the nominees in congressional, or legislative, caucuses between 1800 and 1824. This system was scrapped, because many considered it elitist and not representative of the entire party. State legislatures, state conventions, and congressional caucuses selected nominees in the 1824 and 1828 elections. In 1831, the Anti-Masons, a third party, held the first National Convention. Democrats were the first major party to hold a National Convention in 1832.

In the past, the national convention served as a decision-making body, actually determining the party's nominee. For example, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots to select John Davis as the nominee. The last Democratic Convention to go beyond one ballot occurred in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot; the 1948 Republican Convention lasted to a third ballot until New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey won the nomination.  Republicans had a close vote in 1976 in Kansas City when President Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan by 1187 votes to 1070 votes.

Two significant changes have occurred in recent decades. First, most of the national convention delegates are now selected by voters in primary contests rather than by party caucuses and meetings. Second, with the advent of television, conventions have become tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.  Each party seeks to present itself in the best possible light and to demonstrate a united front rather than to hash out its differences.

While conventions have always attracted an assortment of demonstrators, coordinated mobilizations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the 2000 conventions drew thousands of activists advocating a range of progressive issues; these necessitated major police presences.  Shadow Conventions were also held in the two cities.  In 2003 activists opposed to the Republicans gathering in New York began organizing under the banner "RNC Not Welcome." However, since the Governor of New York and the Mayor of New York City, are both Republicans, the Republican Party will have their National Convention in the "BIG APPLE" Aug. 30 - Sept. 2. 

One could argue that modern day conventions are little more than four-day advertisements for the political parties. Because there is no longer much suspense, conventions have suffered declining viewer-ship, coverage by the major networks has been cut, and some observers have suggested that the conventions themselves should be cut to three days.

The conventions may have been reduced to rubber stamps, but they still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties. In many ways, the essence of a convention is what happens off of the convention floor. In the lead-up to the convention, the drafting of the party platform provides interests, aligned with the party a forum, to present their concerns. During the days of the convention itself, hundreds of events, caucuses, receptions, breakfasts, fundraisers, and parties take place in the hotels surrounding the convention hall. At the end of the convention, party activists return to their communities energized for the fall campaign, and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a convention bounce.

The major party conventions are funded by grants from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the $3 income tax check-off), by non-partisan, non-profit host committees, and to a lesser degree by local taxpayers.  For their 2004 conventions, the Democrats and Republicans each received grants of about $14.5 million; this amount is the $4 million set in 1974 by the Federal Election Campaign Act plus a cost-of-living adjustment.  On June 30, 2003 the FEC certified the Democratic and Republican parties are each entitled to receive $14,592,000 in public funds to put on their 2004 national conventions, and sent letters to the Secretary of the Treasury requesting the payments be made; additional inflation adjustments will be added in 2004.


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