As the broadcast networks continue to scale back television coverage of the upcoming political conventions, it is interesting to reflect on how these meetings have evolved. Once central to determining presidential nominees, few major decisions are made at the conventions these days. Still, the quadrennial rituals remain a vital part of how a presidential candidate and his party present themselves to the country.
Inspired by the example of the Constitutional Convention, the short-lived Anti-Mason party held the first political convention in 1831. The Democrats followed suit in 1832, with delegates nominating Martin Van Buren as President Andrew Jackson 's VP. The Republicans, which only emerged as a party in the anti-slavery ferment of the 1850s, conducted their first convention in 1856, making John C. Fremont its first standard bearer.
In the days before primaries and caucuses constrained the votes of delegates, conventions frequently held multiple roll call ballots to determine the outcome, as party bosses wheeled and dealt in the “smoke-filled” rooms of the era. After a party record 36 ballots in 1880, the Republicans nominated James Garfield. Never to be outdone in the realm of party divisions, the Democrats required a whopping 103 ballots to choose John W. Davis as their candidate in 1924 (wonder why he lost!).
Mass media raised the conventions’ profile, with the 1924 conventions the first to be heard on radio. Breaking with the tradition of the nominee not attending the convention, Franklin Roosevelt delivered the first acceptance speech at the height of the Great Depression in 1932.
Though radio boosted the gatherings, the arrival of television raised the conventions’ exposure to another level in the 1950s. While only a few homes had TVs in 1948, by 1952 more and more American households could watch the ritual at home. In an era when the three networks ruled, the conventions provided the only viewing option during their four-day reign and between 1/3 and ½ of viewers watched part of the ’52 gatherings (Morris and Francia, p. 3). Over the next two decades, NBC and CBS featured gavel-to-gavel coverage, making David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite major stars.
Millions watched the two parties sort out their divisions. In 1952, both parties engaged in nomination battles, with Ohio Senator Robert Taft and General Dwight D. Eisenhower fighting it out for the GOP and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson doing the same for the Democrats, with Ike and Stevenson emerging victorious. Stevenson needed three ballots to defeat Kefauver, the last time more than one ballot was required for a nominee. After being nominated again in 1956, Stevenson allowed the convention delegates to choose his vice-president, with Kefauver edging out a young Massachusetts senator by the name of John F. Kennedy. Though JFK lost, he used the public attention from the ’56 convention to launch a successful campaign for the presidency in 1960.
During the turbulent 1960s, the schisms in American society played out at the conventions. Moderate and conservative Republicans fought at the 1964 GOP gathering in San Francisco, with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater’s triumph a sign of the rising power of the right wing of the Republican Party. That same year, audiences watched Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer tell the credentials committee at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City of the brutal repression she experienced trying to register to vote in the Magnolia State, only to have President Lyndon Johnson announced a press conference to steal the spotlight from her. Of course, the ultimate battle came over Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, as anti-war protesters fought with the local police outside the hall while Vice-President Hubert Humphrey received the nomination inside. The images of police beating the protesters doomed Humphrey’s chances in the fall and paved the way for changes in the nominating process.
While Progressive activists created the first primaries in the early 20th century, only a small number of states held them and few delegates were determined through this mechanism. After the Chicago debacle, the Democrats established the McGovern-Fraser commission, which implemented reforms that expanded the power of primary voters at the expense of the party bosses. In 1972, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a candidate with little support from the establishment, won the nomination through the primaries. As a result, party nominees started to be determined well before the summer conventions.
Drained of their old drama, conventions became much more stage-managed affairs with the parties leaving little to chance. In light of this predictability as well as declining ratings, the major networks began to reduce their airtime, abandoning gavel-to-gavel coverage by 1980 (Karabell, p. 3). This year, the big three broadcast networks will only show three hours of live coverage. Most coverage has migrated to the cable networks and now, to the Internet.
Nevertheless, the conventions maintain a key role in the process because they offer a platform for the candidates greater than any besides the presidential debates. The audiences for Barack Obama and John McCain’s acceptance speeches in 2008 were greater than the viewership for the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremonies or the Oscars (NYT, September 6, 2008).
And it is not just the major candidates that can benefit from the conventions. Inspiring speeches by then-national unknowns such as Mario Cuomo in 1984 and Obama in 2004 launched their careers into the stratosphere. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the keynote speakers for the Republicans and Democrats this year, respectively, are hoping for a similar moment in the spotlight.
Though they are not what they were from the 1830s to the 1960s, the political conventions remain an important ritual in our democracy. Mitt Romney hopes to generate enough of a “bounce” from the festivities to overcome Obama’s lead in the polls. Nowadays, though, if you want to watch something else, I’m sure “The Real Housewives” is showing on another station.
Alan Brinkley, “The Taming of the Political Convention,” in Liberalism and its Discontents (Cambridge, 1998)
Peter Francia and Jonathan Morris, “From Network News to Cable Coverage: The Evolution of Television Coverage of Political Conventions” Paper for Presentation at State of Parties Conference, Akron, Ohio, October 2005
Zachary Karabell, “The Rise and Fall of the Televised Political Convention,” Discussion Paper, The Joan Shorenstein Center, Harvard University, October 1998