Political Conventions Will Likely Never Be The Same

Aug 14, 2020
Originally published on August 14, 2020 8:40 am

It's a nondescript, utilitarian room in the bowels of a sports arena. The presidential nomination is on the line. Aides to three candidates still in the contest are haggling with convention staff over who speaks when, will their biographical videos be shown, whose office space is nearest the floor. It's a political junkie's dream. It could be real. But it's not. This is how it played out in a 2012 episode of NBC's prime-time drama The West Wing.

The last time something even remotely close to this truly happened was in the summer of 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson secured the Democratic nomination on the third ballot — the third round of voting. That's how far you have to go back to find a presidential nominating convention that needed more than one ballot to choose its nominee.

And since the 1970s, such a scenario has become even more unlikely, given that delegates are now awarded in caucus and primary contests held in every state and territory.

A tradition going back two centuries

The big Democratic and Republican conventions are a political tradition dating back to the 1800s. But in the modern era, each year, there's growing criticism that they are simply outdated, expensive, multi-day infomercials. This year, the pandemic has forced both parties to cancel plans and make their conventions virtual. Some see it as an opportunity to completely overhaul how such events are held in future years.

Beyond the fact that it was the last time there was a so-called brokered convention, 1952 was an important year. It was also the year of the very first live, coast-to-coast television broadcast of political convention proceedings. Both party gatherings were held weeks apart, at the International Amphitheater in Chicago. Viewers across the country were able to watch from their living rooms as the Democrats nominated Stevenson, while the GOP standard-bearer was a newcomer to politics, former General Dwight D. Eisenhower who would go on to win the election. But television also brought a shift in how the organizers of the conventions approached their jobs. Professor Eric Heberlig of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte says the parties began looking beyond the convention hall. He says their thinking was, "what's going to reinforce our verbal message with a visual message," adding the planning began to focus on "that audience out there that's watching on television?"

Newsreel footage of several Democratic candidates heading into the convention to battle for the presidential nomination in 1952.
British Pathé / YouTube

Charisma and conflict in the TV age

To watch old newsreel footage of that first televised convention is to see a very primitive production. The sound was often distorted. The camera movements often jerky, the images grainy. The technology improved rapidly, and by 1960, the Democrats nominated the young, telegenic Sen. John F. Kennedy, who was the first candidate to fully embrace the age of television.

"I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that New Frontier," Kennedy said from the rostrum, clearly speaking to more than just the delegates in the hall, "My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age — to the stout in spirit, regardless of party."

But as TV took over, the cameras also captured conflict, and party infighting. That's what made the 1964 Republican convention memorable, as conservative and liberal wings of the GOP clashed in plain view of the networks. That's the convention where conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater captured the nomination, with a speech that boasted, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice!" After a roar of cheers and applause Goldwater finished the sentence with, "let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

On July 16, 1964, Barry Goldwater waves to delegates inside the Cow Palace at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. He claimed the GOP presidential nomination at a convention soured with party divisions, all aired on television.
AP

That line was a sharp rebuke to an earlier convention speech from Goldwater rival Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor from New York. Rockefeller had been addressing the platform committee, stating that, "The Republican party should reject extremism from either the left or the right." The governor, who himself had sought the presidential nomination that year, was drowned out by shouts from the delegates and spectators.

Four years later, Democrats had their own epic and messy internal battles at a convention where the enduring images are of violent clashes outside between anti-war protestors and Chicago police using aggressive tactics.

Big moments for new faces

Conventions have become increasingly choreographed, much to the frustration of television networks hoping for a story to tell. Still, that doesn't necessarily mean there aren't legitimately newsworthy moments.

In 2004, there was a young state senator from Illinois, who was running for the U.S. Senate that summer. His name was Barack Obama and he described, "The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."

Then, in 2008, there was a little known GOP governor from Alaska named Sarah Palin, who was a surprise pick as the running mate to John McCain just days before the convention. Palin delivered a blockbuster speech, peppered with humor.

"I love those hockey moms," she said, deftly setting up a punch-line, "You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."

CNN / YouTube

Palin's celebrity soared, even as her political career fizzled. But the Republican convention was her first big stage.

And as for the complaints that conventions have become too scripted, with nothing left to chance, there are still moments that backfire. Witness Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984, who made a promise that would haunt his campaign to unseat President Ronald Reagan.

"Mr. Reagan will raise taxes," Mondale intoned, adding, "and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

Then there was the time in 2012 when a surprise guest took stage at the Republican convention in Tampa. Viewers were stunned to see actor/director Clinton Eastwood appear, standing next to an empty chair. He pretended President Obama was sitting there for an interview.

Actor and director Clint Eastwood addresses an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., a peculiar, rambling conversation with an imaginary President Barack Obama that delayed programming to help promote GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Charles Dharapak / AP

"What do you want me to tell Romney?" Eastwood said in his gravelly Dirty Harry voice. A pause, then "I, I can't tell him to do that. He can't do that to himself." The mere hint there of vulgarity may not seem like much in 2020, but in 2012, at a convention to nominate Mitt Romney, it was both awkward and a bit shocking. The audience did laugh --- nervously.

Time for a change, political pros say

Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, has come to the conclusion that it's time to scrap the ritual of the big, multi-day political convention.

"Conventions haven't changed in practically 40 years," Heye says. They've "become four nights of a big, bloated system that just doesn't get the attention that it used to."

TV networks that once boasted of their gavel-to-gavel coverage, now only carry the big prime-time speeches live. And even during those evening broadcast, anchors and guests talk over most of the action on the convention floor.

Heye says the cost of providing security — millions and millions of dollars — also makes such events less attractive to potential host cities as well. He says the pandemic gives everyone a reason to rethink how these things are done.

This year, the conventions have gone virtual. That's a dramatic break from tradition and, Heye says, "I think it'd be almost impossible for a party to say we want to go back exactly to what we did in 2016 and this was just a blip."

"You're going to evolve from this one way or another," he predicts. "The question is how?"

Ballons fall after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke and accepted the party nomination on the last day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio.
JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images

What's next?

Democrats and Republicans alike were already trying to adapt to a new viewing audience. The push this year has been to use VIRAL moments in the way JFK embraced TV 60 years ago. Leah Daughtry ran two national conventions for the Democrats — in 2008 and in 2016. She says conventions — no matter what shape they take — do still answer some core questions for voters.

"What are the party's values? What is the party's vision? How is this nominee going to take us further? How are we planning to move the nation?" Those are important things that voters, many of whom see conventions as their cue to start paying attention to the election, want to have answered.

Daughtry predicts that once 2020 is over, the next round of conventions in 2024 will be shortened to maybe just two days instead of the traditional four. She says that even if TV networks give them less coverage, they still have great value for the party, and for party activists who volunteer for campaigns.

"I don't know that conventions are dead," says Daughtry. who today works as a Christian minister at a church in Washington, D.C. "They may be reformed and reformatted." And, she begins to evangelize when she thinks about the people who come to conventions as delegates and as volunteers, "But that kind of energy of several thousand people, you and your closest thousand friends in the hall just won't go away. "

It does seem like the door is being closed on a certain kind of convention. What the future template for these mega-events will look like in the future is still unknown. A lot will likely be learned from how 2020's virtual conventions go, but no one believes that they will be the model for 2024 and beyond.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Political conventions are a tradition dating back to the 1800s in this country. But this time, of course, it's different. Democrats are gathering virtually next week with the Republicans to follow virtually the following week. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been wondering whether conventions will ever be the same again. Here's Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Every election season, the questions reemerge. Will this be the year for a brokered convention with a dramatic battle for delegates on the floor? It's long been the stuff of movies and television. In this episode of NBC's "The West Wing," we see the backroom jockeying over the most mundane details.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WEST WING")

JOHN SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) Please clear your speeches four hours before...

JOSHUA MALINA: (As Will Bailey) We have to clear our speeches?

SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) She approves everything that goes on air until we have a nominee.

MALINA: (As Will Bailey) What about our introductory videos? You going to censor those, too?

SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) No because there aren't going to be any.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: (As Annabeth Schott) Network's hate them. It's a free ad for your candidates.

GONYEA: But reality has a way of pouring cold water on such storytelling. To find a convention that actually went beyond the first ballot in choosing a nominee, you need to go way back to 1952.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: The convention really goes wild as Gov. Schricker of Indiana nominates his fellow Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, dark horse of the convention, who steadfastly refused to advance his candidacy.

GONYEA: That clip is from an old Universal Newsreel filmed as Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson needed three rounds of voting to secure the Democratic nomination. There's another reason 1952 is significant. For the first time, conventions were live on television from coast to coast. It was a new tool to reach a huge audience. Then, in 1960, the first candidate to fully embrace the age of television...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age; to the stout in spirit, regardless of party...

GONYEA: That's John F. Kennedy accepting the Democratic nomination. But as TV took over, convention planners didn't always fully appreciate that the cameras would also capture conflict, like at the GOP convention of 1964. Sen. Barry Goldwater was the nominee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRY GOLDWATER: I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: That line was a sharp rebuke to an earlier convention speech from Goldwater rival Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON ROCKEFELLER: The Republican Party should reject extremism from either the left or the right.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: Four years later, Democrats had their own epic and messy internal battles at a convention, where the enduring images are of violent clashes outside between anti-war protesters and Chicago police. That kind of disruption hasn't been seen since. Still, conventions remain a place for new faces on the political scene to emerge. In 2004, it was a state senator from Illinois...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: ...The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

GONYEA: ...And in '08, a little-known GOP governor...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH PALIN: I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull - lipstick.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: As for the complaints that conventions have become too choreographed, too scripted - well, there are still moments that backfire. Witness Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984 and a promise that would haunt his campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALTER MONDALE: Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.

GONYEA: And how about the 2012 Republican convention when surprise guest actor-director Clint Eastwood pretended to interview President Obama, represented by an empty chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINT EASTWOOD: What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that - can't do that to himself.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: It did not go over well. Doug Heye is a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He's one who is ready to scrap the ritual of the big multiday gatherings.

DOUG HEYE: Conventions haven't changed in practically 40 years. They've become four nights of a big, bloated system that just doesn't get the attention that it used to.

GONYEA: Heye says the pandemic gives everyone a reason to rethink how these things are done.

HEYE: I think it'd be almost impossible for a party to say, we want to go back to exactly what we did in 2016. And this was just a blip. You're going to evolve from this one way or another. The question is how.

GONYEA: The parties were already trying to adapt to a new viewing audience to use viral moments in the way JFK embraced TV. Leah Daughtry ran two conventions for the Democrats, in 2008 and in '16. She says conventions do still answer some core questions for voters.

LEAH DAUGHTRY: What are the party's values? How is this nominee going to take us further? How are we planning to move the nation?

GONYEA: Daughtry predicts they will be shortened starting in 2024, maybe to just two days. And, she says, even if TV networks cover them less, they still have a great value for the party.

DAUGHTRY: I don't know that conventions are dead. They may be reformed and reformatted, but that kind of energy of several thousand people - you and your closest thousand friends in the hall, won't go away.

GONYEA: But it does feel like we're closing the door on a certain kind of convention. And if the template for the future is still unknown, it seems pretty certain that what we'll see at the 2020 conventions will not be it.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.