Do We Really Need National Political Conventions?


Ed Morrissey writes in The Week  that national political conventions are meaningless both in function, given that they no longer actually select the national candidate, and in form given that nobody outside of the political media and political junkies are paying attention anyway.

Let’s face it: The days when conventions controlled party nominations for the presidency have long since passed. Although every four years the political media wishes for an open convention, the last year in which a major-party nominee had to win the nod at a brokered convention was 1952, and the last time a nominee from a brokered convention actually won the general election was 1932 — 80 years ago. Ever since, the primary/caucus system has produced clear nominees for first-ballot victories, most of those pro-forma events.

Even when the national conventions did have the power to pick nominees, the process was anything but savory. State parties used the caucus system to choose delegates in the same manner that they chose nominees for state and local offices, a system that was rife with corruption and still to this dayproduces confusion and disarray. The primary system and the secret ballot provided much-needed reform to the electoral process at every level of politics, and a full adoption of the primary system along with bound delegates would make the conventions completely unnecessary in most cases, at least in terms of nominating presidential candidates.

Rasmussen had a poll out earlier this week indicating that few voters will be paying any significant level of attention to either the Democrat or Republican national conventions.  So if Americans don’t really pay attention to the conventions, and if they don’t really serve any purpose within the party itself (a lot of the routine party business could be accomplished without a convention) then why even have them?

You could argue that the influence of the conventions goes beyond direct viewership.  The political media, and even the rank-and-file political junkies, who eat it up tend to be pretty influential among voters who don’t concern themselves with such minutiae.  You could also argue that the parties need their conventions to keep their base of activists engaged and fired up (though given the way Republicans have been behaving you have to wonder how much they actually care about that).

I’d like to see a return to a days of the brokered convention, with factions within the party duking it out to pick a candidate.  I think that would be a more inclusive, if still far from perfect, process but as Morrissey points out it doesn’t translate itself well to success on the general ballot.  Allowing intra-party squabbling to go on that long only weakens the candidate.  The historical record bears this out.

So America’s national political conventions, much like Great Britain’s monarchy, will ultimately remain but more as a spectacle than anything truly meaningful.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • Jamer Morrow

    One big kiss ass festival. I am sure many peoples lips are sore today.

  • RCND

    After what I saw at the state GOP convention, you may as well add that to the list of the useless as well…. simply from the standpoint of not killing the enthusiasm of so many by placing them in the same room where they can observe the true immaturity and power-drunkness of the party elite

  • SigFan

    Given the 24 hour nature of the news today and the fact that nominees are really not selected at the convention – probably not.

  • The Fighting Czech

    This system is the best way to let people think they’ve selected the nominee. the Parties will spend millions upon millions of dollars to convince people to vote for the “Chosen One”. If all that fails, They just tweak the rules a little. and act like nothing happened…
    another reason for Term limits….

  • Neiman

    The engineers, architects, iron workers and a host of people in small sections built a great ship, it was completed on time, under budget and ready to go; so, why have a ceremony to launch it? Because things need celebrated, the substance paraded and it needs to be launched for every one to see, it is a way to get attention and gain support.

    I want no part in such things, they bore me; but I watch them like I watch a ship being launched, because it deserves to be celebrated and given a send off.

    It reminds me of the question, why does the sperm whale, the largest mammal on earth have a throat the size of a large egg? Answer: Just because that’s the way it is.

  • John Wayne -American

    I’d rather see a 6 or 8 regional primary elections, (Divide the country into 6-8 regions and then draw from the hat at the Natl Convention for the order in which they will be held) 1 a week from May 1 though June 30, the Natl. delegates are then bound by the results of their respective state primary.

    Hold a 2 day convention in September to introduce the winner to the country, The platform and rules of the party can be voted upon at this convention.

    The first day for the VP and biz of the party, the second day, the state by state vote tally with the candidate coming out to make his big speech and the balloons drop.

    Sure it would all be decided before hand, but at least the presumption of a contest would be dropped and the whole thing could be taken for what it is, a 2 day commercial for each party.

    My plan would give the states Jan though May to hold their conventions, the delegates to the convention would later be assigned to the Presidential candidates committee to be assigned proportionality after the regional state primary in May or June. Might need more thought on how that would work, but you see how overall it cleans up so much of the B.S. of these campaigns/conventions.

    The nice thing about my system is even if a candidate doesn’t win, his proportion of delegates still get to go to the convention to have influence on the platform and the rules. That process should be widened to have a full day prior to the convention for its discussion and passage. This would put more importance on the platform and keep the rule making in the hands of the delegates rather than the party chiefs.

    • borborygmi

      “, a 2 day commercial for each party. ” Aptly put.

    • The Fighting Czech

      Why not just have the primary voting for both parties on the same day? they can have their individual Parties, I mean convention a week or two before the primary vote…after all, weve seen that the conventions are just a dog and pony show anyway. the public would be spared endless hours of meaningless political banter, and advertising. the republican and democrat party members through out the whole country would actually have a voice in selecting a candidate. other then those little things, I like a lot of what you suggest…. Of course we know the powers to be, would never allow this kind of thing to happen…

  • borborygmi

    It is a coronation but for those that do watch you see new faces, faces and speeches that launch careers. Pres Obama, Sarah Palin. A national spotlight is shown on some unknowns. I will watch Ryan tonight. Majority of Americans especially the under 30 crowd might tune in. I am with Rob and would like to see the brokered convention. Call me old fashioned.

  • Lynn Bergman

    Each and every Republican is, in the future, responsible to see that the results of the Republican presidential preference election is used to select delegates to the national convention on a direct representative basis and require that the first ballot vote be strictly in accordance with the election results.
    This year North Dakota Republican leadership wasted my time and effort to support Santorum by largely ignoring the election results when selecting delegates and when casting the first ballot votes at the convention… and that pissed me off more than anything in politics ever has!
    I might have had a chance to carry through with my support of Santorum through the first ballot, then employ my wisdom on subsequent ballots… instead I watched a Romney stacked delegation smugly omit any reference to Santorum’s win or Ron Paul’s second.
    Give credit to the Ron Paul supporters; they have convictions and demanded Paul votes from as many states as they could, bringing the light of public opinion to the problem. I look forward to working with honest Republicans and the Tea Party caucus in making this right next cycle!
    Tea Partiers don’t just get mad…we make it right.
    Funny how absolute power corrupts absolutely!