National conventions are part of the electoral process. National conventions have been held in August in recent election years, and they have to show both Republican and Democrat parties at their very best as the media coverage of these events is immense. Whether these conventions are a vital part of the  American political structure, though, is open to debate.

In the past the two national conventions (held by both parties prior to a national election) were of great importance in that it would be at these events that the parties would announce who had won the ‘party ticket’ and would represent that party as the presidential nomination in a national election. His running mate as vice presidential candidate would  also be announced.

 Therefore the behind the scenes political intrigue at these conventions was at its peak so that vested interests got ‘their man’ as the party’s presidential nominee. This lead to clashes at a time when party unity had to be seen by the public as being at its peak. As a result of this both parties effectively know who their nominations are going to be by the time the national conventions convene. Such information can be easily gained from the stated political support registered at both local and state level in the primaries.

So what is the purpose of the national conventions? Historically, they are usually held in either July or August of the election year – though August was favoured by both parties in 2000. They have a number of purposes:

1. the official party candidates are announced to the public by both parties.

2. each party’s policy platform is announced. This is essentially what each party plans to do if elected by the  people. These platforms are then adopted by the parties but they are not binding on either candidates or state parties.

The political ‘bloodshed’ spilt in the past has meant that conventions are now nothing more than a media event. In the recent past a national convention has served to highlight just how fragmented a party can be and this does not serve them well in the public eye. In 1960 the Democrat Party had a political certainty in J F Kennedy. The public image was perfect for the election in that year. 

However, behind the public show of support, the Democratic Party was far from united at the time of the Democratic Party’s national convention. When Kennedy arrived at the convention, he did not have a majority of party delegates under his control and this only occurred after a lot of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. That he won the election (though in a very close result) says much about how the party kept this lack of outright support from the media and therefore the public.

Conventions such as the one involving Kennedy in 1960 are known as brokered conventions. This is a reference to the long hours of bargaining that take place behind the scenes by party bosses. As such a system is potentially damaging to a party if such disunity is leaked to the media, there has been a drive to have a clear cut candidate and running mate selected before the national conventions take place. However, if this has not happened (and the movement of the primaries to earlier dates might present the two parties with a problem in future) and no obvious candidate has come to the fore, the conventions might go back to what they were – the time when the party’s presidential candidate is voted for. This is not something that either party relishes as there will always be the potential for party disunity to surface with the added problems of media intrusion into the issue. What could be disastrous for one party could be invaluable to the other who would run a negative campaign along the lines of “Would you vote for a party that can’t make it’s own mind up? etc.

Negative campaigning is where a party concentrates its efforts not on publicising its own policies but on trashing the policies and personalities of the other party.

The most disastrous convention in recent history occurred in 1968 with the Democrats. The party nominee – Hubert Humphrey – had not won a single primary but was put forward as the party’s presidential nominee because he had the support of Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent but shortly to retire president. Outside the convention hall riot police fought with youths who wanted a candidate more sympathetic to their left wing views. The convention got more media coverage for the riots outside and the obvious problems selecting a candidate who had not been popular at a local level and had not won a single primary. The Democrats lost the election.

There was a similar episode also involving the Democrats in the 1972 party convention. This time there was no problem with the nomination (George McGovern) but the organisation of the convention was a shambles.

“The Democrats gave an appearance of being anti-religion and pro-drugs, anti-profit  and pro-welfare, anti-family and pro-abortion, anti-farmer and pro-migrant worker, anti-Saigon and pro-Hanoi, anti-armed forces and pro draft-dodgers.” (S. Ambrose)

Richard Nixon (Republican) won a landslide victory. The media concentrated on the Democrats woes and gave Nixon what was essentially a political free ride.

Today, both national conventions are massive media events and a repetition of the 1972 Democrats fiasco have to be avoided at all costs. The author Norman Mailer has described national conventions as:

“a fiesta, a carnival, a pig-rooting, horse-snorting, band-playing, voice screaming medieval get together of greed, practical lust, compromised idealism, career- advancement, meeting, feud, vendetta, conciliation of rabble-rousers, fist fights, embraces, drunks and collective rivers of animal sweat.”

This was written in 1976. Today, a vast amount of time and energy is put into the conventions so that the chances of any mishaps are kept to a minimum. The onus for this rests with the two party chairman. It is their responsibility to present a stage-managed event that is free from scandal. The convention will also have to be media friendly so that the reports in the press and on television will be positive and productive. The portrayal of total party unity will be the most important issue on the minds of both chairmen. The conventions are essentially choreographed with floor managers ensuring that everything runs smoothly. The image the convention presents should be one that will persuade those who have yet to make up their minds that the future of the country is safe in the hands of this party. The crowning glory of the week long conventions is if your presidential hope is ahead in the opinion polls.

One of the final tasks at a convention is the selection of a vice president running partner. The choice of the presidential nominee is nearly always accepted though George McGovern’s choice – Thomas Eagleton – was opposed in the 1972 campaign but later accepted therefore clearly showing the voting public that there was no unity in the Democrat’s camp. The choice of “running mate” is important as in recent years a lot more time has been spent on assessing the qualities of the vice presidential candidates. Both parties want to portray their two candidates as having a “dream ticket”.

The “dream ticket” effectively started with Kennedy as he was young, from the east of America and Catholic. His running mate, Lyndon Johnson, was much older than Kennedy, Protestant and from the south (Texas). The “dream ticket” tries to put together two people who can appeal to the largest number of groups and voters. In 1984, Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro in an effort to get the votes of women; George Bush chose the younger Dan Qualye in 1988. Clinton broke this pattern in 1992 by selecting Al Gore as his running mate – they were nearly the same age, both were from the South and both were seen to be conservative.

In 2000, the Democrats national convention was held in Los Angeles. Here the Democrat’s presidential candidate, Al Gore publically presented his vice-presidential running mate, Joseph Liebermann, to the party. Gore returned to the tried and tested ‘opposites’ in that Liebermann was from the north and was a Jew; in contrast to Gore’s southern background. However, this was to somewhat backfire, when Gore was accused by some of only selecting Liebermann to get the important Jewish vote (though historically, the Jews have usually voted for the Democrats in national elections). Another major problem that the Democrats had for the Los Angeles convention, was what part Bill Clinton should play. Here was a departing president for eight years, but whose private life from 1998 to 2000 had taken more media coverage internationally than his work as president. 

This presented the floor managers with a problem. Simply by being president, Clinton would have to play some role. But if Gore was to be seen as a man who wanted to uphold traditional American family values, what part could Clinton play? Also, out of the two, Clinton was far more charismatic than Gore. Would he steal the show from Gore despite the fact that one was retiring as president and one was running for the position? Clinton gave a speech to the party that lasted about 15 minutes and in this sense he did not outshine Gore. However, in post-election analysis, some Democrats believed that Clinton should have been allowed to play a more significant role during the convention to liven up what was considered to be a convention that lacked sparkle. As with many things in politics, hindsight is a great gift! 

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