When Conventions Have Mattered

When Conventions Have MatteredAugust 17, 2020

With both the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention going virtual this year, there are once again questions about what it is exactly that the national party conventions do.

For instance, conventions haven’t really picked the nominees for president and vice president since party reforms in the 1970s — arguably even earlier — so it raises the question: At this point, are they just really expensive events with lots of balloons and TV cameras?

If we look at the history of modern conventions, it’s tempting to dismiss the large, in-person gatherings of power players from all around the country as pageantry. But if you look closer, you’ll notice that conventions have played an important role for different wings of the party, who may disagree with party leadership and want to generate their own media attention.

Granted, this has become harder to do over the years, especially as conventions have become more TV-centric and prepackaged. And that will likely be particularly true this year given the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean conventions have lost all meaning. Even if nothing is actually decided at the conventions, they still shine a spotlight on the parties, illuminating emerging factions and up-and-coming politicians, setting the stage for — and creating — the future of each party. That’s why it’s unfortunate that this year’s format has to be virtual — and why one should hope that it won’t be the new normal.

Convention clashes often underscore big party divisions

It’s hard to imagine that there will be a big clash in the parties this year given the virtual aspect of the conventions, but it’s worth noting that the physical environment of the conventions has, at times, created memorable confrontations between conflicting wings of the party.

Take the 1948 “Dixiecrat walkout,” in which delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out of the Democratic convention in protest of the party’s embrace of the civil-rights movement in both its platform and floor speeches. The delegates didn’t just walk out either. Several in the party broke away and formed the States’ Rights Party, which ran its own presidential ticket that year.

Now, it’s true that this infighting didn’t actually affect the convention all that much. For instance, it didn’t stop Democrats from including language on civil rights in its platform. Nor did it prevent the nominee, Harry Truman, from winning the actual election. But it did foreshadow the gradual loss of power of the Southern faction within the Democratic Party.

Similarly, in 1964, the Republicans went into their convention deeply divided, between moderate and liberal Republicans on the one hand and the growing conservative faction that supported Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater on the other. When New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, one of the liberal old guard, spoke on the floor against extremism, convention delegates booed.

Historian Geoffrey Kabaservice reports the impressions of those who had been on the floor: one moderate Republican activist, Tanya Melich, said it “felt like Nazi Germany,” while former president Dwight Eisenhower commented on the anti-democratic spirit of the moment. Of course, Goldwater was resoundingly defeated, but the lasting impact of the 1964 convention was an emphasis on party unity in post-election discussions, and in the selection of the next RNC chair. (This clash also foreshadowed the party’s movement in a more Goldwater direction.)

Over time, conventions have become more scripted and less spontaneous, making moments like 1948 and 1964 harder to see. But that doesn’t mean that dissension is completely hidden now. The 2016 Democratic convention had some tense moments between Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters, for example, with Sanders supporters chanting and booing during speeches on the convention’s first night.

Of course, this didn’t change the result of the already-determined floor vote — Clinton still walked away the nominee — but it did serve as a vivid reminder of the fissures within the party. And after Clinton’s loss in November, the idea that the party lacked cohesion became part of the explanation for why she lost. This engendered some resentment among Clinton supporters, but it also led to some fairly large concessions to the Sanders faction. Party leaders, for instance, recommended limiting the role of superdelegates in the conventions, a change Sanders supporters had long advocated, and which the party adopted in 2018.

Fights over convention rules can be more than just procedural

Although fights over convention rules might seem arcane, they are often motivated by larger, and more meaningful, party disagreements.

Let’s go back to 1964 for a moment. The Democratic Party was in a moment of great upheaval over civil rights, with members from some states, like Mississippi, actively fighting against the movement. In fact, Mississippi’s state party had banned African Americans from party meetings, and thus its delegation lacked any Black members. This angered some Democrats in the state, and so as a way of protesting segregation and the years of intimidation and disenfranchisement that Black voters had faced, a group of activists organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Their intention was to highlight the injustice and illegitimacy of the official delegation, and they hoped to take their places on the convention floor.

Party leadership offered the group two non-voting delegate seats, but a compromise could not be reached. Instead, the MFDP occupied empty seats on the convention floor and sang freedom songs in protest when the chairs were removed. As historian Sam Rosenfeld writes in “The Polarizers,” the MFDP actually had a pretty weak case under convention rules, but the moral force of their stance left a lasting mark on the party. The national party moved to ban racial discrimination among state delegations, and some of the members of the MFDP were seated at the convention in 1968.

Fast forward to 2012, when the Republicans had their own — albeit very different — skirmish over rules. Then-Rep. Ron Paul hadn’t won a single primary, but thanks to states that choose delegates through caucuses and conventions, his supporters were able to take over several state delegations. Although the nomination of Mitt Romney was not in question, there was still some conflict on the floor — fights over the seating of Paul delegates and a push to place his name officially in contention for the nomination, which would have given him a speaking slot at the convention.

Party leaders, however, wanted to present a unified party and direct media attention toward Romney. So they changed the rules to thwart the Paul movement to prevent something like this from happening again: In order to be eligible to be nominated at the convention, a candidate needed to win the majority of delegates in at least eight states.

This was a substantial change — previously, a candidate needed only a plurality of delegates in only five states — and it had unintended consequences. One of which, political scientist Caitlin Jewitt argues in her book on primary rules, was that the new rule would have prevented party leaders dissatisfied with the possibility of a Trump nomination from entering any other names into consideration. Accordingly, the party changed the rule, again — back to a candidate needing only a plurality of delegates in five states — and leaders talked about whether it could be changed for 2016 so that it could place a more mainstream Republican, like Ted Cruz or John Kasich, into contention. But ultimately, this didn’t matter, as Trump ended up securing the nomination before the convention anyway.

Convention speeches can also shape our politics

Let’s face it, convention speeches can be a little stilted. They’re usually pretty safe and predictable. But a few have proven memorable — maybe even influential. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s 1984 convention speech certainly deserves at least a brief mention here. It tackled economic inequality and challenged incumbent president Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about American individualism. In the words of historian Jeff Shesol, “It was all the things that Democrats wished themselves to be but no longer felt they were as a party.” And when Cuomo died in 2015, some commentators connected his legacy, including the ideas expressed in this speech, to reemerging progressive politics in the Democratic Party, and to figures like Elizabeth Warren.

Eight years later, Pat Buchanan, a former Richard Nixon and Reagan aide and political commentator, made his own splash at the 1992 GOP convention after his somewhat successful challenge to incumbent President George H.W. Bush. As part of the socially conservative and more populist wing of the party, Buchanan had long had reservations about Bush, so he used his speaking slot at the convention to talk about the impending “culture wars.” His line, “this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are,” helped usher in a new form of politics, in which compromise was outdated, and outrage the dominant mode of discourse.

But perhaps the most consequential convention speech of the modern era was delivered by an Illinois state senator in 2004. Delivering his remarks in Boston, Barack Obama famously said,“[T]here is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.” By emphasizing the common ties and values across a divided nation, Obama became, if not a household name, a national political figure. His bid for the presidency four years later still required several hard-fought campaigns, but the speech certainly made Democratic voters and party leaders alike take notice.


Live conventions do not necessarily result in a new platform or nominee. They may not even persuade very many people. But in-person proceedings, and the ability to disrupt them, offers an opportunity for voices within the party that are not easily amplified on Zoom. The story of jeers, walkouts, and credential fights is also the story of how the two parties have transformed themselves and sorted out their distinct and sometimes competing ideological identities.

The television era, the end of contested nominations at the convention, and the emphasis on party unity have all changed this, but conventions are still a place to resolve conflict within parties. And in an era with no shortage of political conflict — whether over race, class, gender, or public health — we’ll have one fewer venue for conflict to play out in public view.

Conventions may not be worth the cost or the time, and during a pandemic they’re certainly too risky, but moving to a virtual format forever would involve risks, and losses, of its own.

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