Michael Barone: Why Conventions Have Become So Dull

Roundup: Media's Take

Michael Barone, in the WSJ (July 26, 2004):

...There is no way to reproduce the old conventions. I stumbled upon the reason why in the '80s, when I was researching my political history narrative "Our Country." In his book on the 1936 election, FDR's campaign manager James A. Farley revealed how he was able to predict, accurately, that Roosevelt would carry 46 of 48 states. He took the extraordinary step, he wrote, of placing one long-distance phone call every week to a politically savvy person in every non-Southern state, with a final call on the weekend before the election. What this tells us is that men at even the highest levels of business in the '30s -- and in the '40s and '50s, until the introduction of direct distance dialing -- did business not by phone but by writing letters. They spent their days reading correspondence and dictating replies to stenographers. Of course no serious man of political business would ever reveal his bottom-line demands in writing. That would have to wait until such men got together in person, once every four years, at their national conventions.

The conventions were thus communication devices, in which campaign managers assessed candidates' strength -- and responded. Votes would be held back, so as to show momentum on later ballots. Favorite-son candidacies would be launched, in the hopes that they could be withdrawn later for reward or parlayed into a dark-horse nomination. No one had an accurate idea of how many delegates candidates had. Thomas E. Dewey, a meticulous man, went into the 1940 Republican convention thinking he had 400. It turned out to be more like 300, and Wendell Willkie, not Dewey, was nominated.

Now such communication goes on throughout the four-year cycle. Political people can access all manner of political information from sources like Nationaljournal.com1's Political Hotline, ABC News's The Note and Realclearpolitics.com2 long before the first caucuses and primaries. The selection of delegates, thanks to successive Democratic reforms starting in 1968, has become the choice of the candidates rather than local parties, and so delegates' allegiance is easily known. To bring the old ways back, you would have to ban long-distance phone calls, the Internet and air travel by operatives.

The tendency of nominations to be decided early in the caucus/primary process has served to reduce the conflict at conventions to zero. In 1980 Edward Kennedy had 40% of the delegates and could defeat the Carter campaign's motions to suspend the rules; his forces bargained for platform concessions and a prominent speaking slot for their candidate in return for letting the Carter people conduct the rest of the convention on schedule. In 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson had enough delegates to get prime-time speaking slots from the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns. In 1992 George H. W. Bush felt obliged to give a speaking slot to Pat Buchanan. None of those speeches helped the nominees, and we've seen nothing like them in conventions since.

Instead, conventions have become personal celebrations of the nominees. We had the Man from Hope in 1992 and 1996; we had Al Gore recounting family tragedies in 1996 and 2000; we had a four-day reverential biography of George W. Bush in 2000. There will be some of the same in Boston: Day two of the Boston convention will be about "John Kerry's lifetime of strength and service." (Preview: It will be revealed that he served in Vietnam.) The broadcast media, which are planning only an hour of programming on three nights (skipping Tuesday), will focus most closely on Mr. Kerry's acceptance speech, which may give him the 5-6% poll bounce most recent nominees have gotten after conventions....

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