Thomas Fitzgerald: Party conventions are high-stakes infomercials

Video displays that will be used during the Republican National Convention are tested.
Video displays that will be used during the Republican National Convention are tested. (WIN McNAMEE / Getty Images)
Posted: August 27, 2012

In some ways, the national political convention, that quadrennial ritual of outré hats, celebration, and protest, has become like the human appendix - a vestigial organ from an ancient time that seems beside the point. What was that thing for again?

Oh, there is plenty of drama as Republicans gather in Tampa, but only because a hurricane is threatening the city. Everyone has known the identity of the nominee for months. (Spoiler alert: Mitt Romney).

The delegates have no substantive issues to debate, no decisions to make. Most of the action in Tampa won't even make it on television. The four major networks were planning to broadcast only three hours of the proceedings, 60 minutes each on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights.

Every four years, pundits pine for the good old days: wrenching floor fights over party doctrine, multiple ballots stretching into the night, speeches so stirring that delegates stampede.

None of that will happen, and for a good reason. For all its foibles and its shrunken presence, the modern party convention maintains an important role in presidential campaigns - as the final, best chance a party has to sell its nominee and vision unfiltered.

In other words, a modern convention is an infomercial; think of those classic 2 a.m. Popiel Pocket Fisherman spots, only with much better production values. (No offense to the Fisherman, a fine implement.)

Research conducted since 1948 by the American National Election Studies, a project of the University of Michigan and Stanford University, makes clear how important national party conventions can be. Among other questions, the detailed surveys track when during a campaign voters made up their minds.

In 1988, for example, 29 percent of voters said they decided whom to support during the Democratic and GOP conventions - that represents the movement of about 26.3 million people. The study of 2008 is not yet published, but in 2004, 14 percent of the electorate made up its mind during the conventions, or, in other words, 18.1 million voters.

Most voters, it turns out, say they "knew all along" what they were going to do in November, perhaps reflecting their partisan leanings, or else made their choice early. The conventions, even more than the debates, serve to solidify support from a candidate's party base and bring in slices of the 5 to 7 percent of truly persuadable voters in each election cycle.

Audiences for the convention star turns - the keynote, the acceptance speech of the vice presidential and presidential nominees - can be robust. John McCain's speech in 2008 was seen by 38.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen, just ahead of the 38.4 million who watched then-Sen. Barack Obama speak. Sarah Palin introduced herself to 37.2 million viewers; 24 million watched Joe Biden.

National conventions appeared in the 1830s; prior to that, congressional caucuses picked their parties' nominees. In the 20th century, the system we know today, in which rank-and-file party voters make their selections in state caucuses and primaries, grew up. In 1960, JFK ran in two contested primaries; there were 10 primaries in 1968. And this year, Mitt Romney had to survive 38 primaries and 13 caucuses.

"That leaves much less for the convention to do," said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, who has studied conventions. "What they do now is provide both parties with the opportunity to present their platforms, message, and candidates when people are watching."

Millions of Americans have avoided the political class' obsession with the unfolding presidential race over the last two years, and many of them will tune in for key parts of the conventions, and it will penetrate.

"So many Americans are not yet paying attention, so the conventions are critical," Jillson said. "A lot of people will be tuning in with a vague idea of who Romney is, and much of what they think they know will be wrong, based on Democratic commercials or skimming news stories."

Political strategists know all this, which is why they take conventions so seriously, spending millions of dollars to build elaborate sets. Romney's $2.5 million stage in Tampa, with lines inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, is designed to slope down to the audience, to counter the idea that the candidate is remote and aloof. To run the show, the campaign has turned to pros from Madison Avenue and the entertainment world.

With the race tight, the election just may be decided Thursday, when Romney speaks from that fancy setting, and on Sept. 6, when President Obama makes his case in Charlotte.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"

at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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