What Actually Happens at the U.S. Presidential Conventions?

Delegates and attendees cheer for Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Delegates and attendees cheer for Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com

The balloons and confetti. Those funny hats. A catchy slogan. A few gauzy biographical videos, and many, many canned, repetitive speeches. One big final embrace. More balloons.

In a few nightly doses on television every four years, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions seem like little more than political pageants—pricey infomercials for the parties and their candidates. And in many respects, that’s what they have become.

Decades ago, power brokers, big-money donors, and thousands of delegates descended on a chosen city with the goal of picking and then nominating candidates for president and vice president. Since 1980, however, that purpose has changed: The conventions now are designed to sell, rather than select, the politicians who rank-and-file voters chose at the polls. They are made-for-television productions that build over four days toward a grand finale—the lengthy address that offers nominees an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters, rally the party faithful, and audition for the role of president.

“The acceptance speech is the only unmediated communication, aside from television advertising, that a candidate can have with the voters,” said Robert Shrum, the veteran Democratic consultant who has advised Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and John Kerry at conventions over the years. “The convention, if done properly, allows you to set out a narrative and that narrative is something that voters can relate to.”

In Cleveland, Donald Trump has vowed to shake up what he has called a “boring” format by bringing in some of his non-politician athlete and celebrity friends. He’s also suggested he might speak to the convention every night and dramatically unveil his running mate at the last minute—all in the name of spicing up what has become a formulaic ritual. 

The Democratic convention in Philadelphia, on the other hand, should look a lot like the recent past, with speeches from the Clintons, Hillary’s yet-to-be-announced running mate, President Obama and Vice President Biden, likely Bernie Sanders, and a few of the party’s rising stars.

Technically, the conventions for both Republicans and Democrats are formal party proceedings. Each is a dressed-up legislative session held in an arena, where delegates vote on matters that have both symbolic and actual importance, including the party platform, rules, and, yes, the presidential and vice presidential nominees.

The Nominees

Only in the last 30 to 40 years have the roll-call votes for president and vice president been faits accomplis. Before the 1970s, the primaries and caucuses that preceded the conventions “were of limited importance,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. The conventions frequently began with multiple viable candidates for the nomination who made their pitches to party leaders and coalitions of state delegations. The parties sometimes needed several ballots to determine the nominee, who often had to negotiate with the party on the selection of a running mate. In 1924, Democrats met in New York for 16 days, the longest political convention in U.S. history. It took nine days and 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis, who went on to lose to the incumbent, President Calvin Coolidge, in the general election.

The last “contested convention” occurred for Republicans in 1976, when President Gerald Ford held off a challenge from Ronald Reagan to capture the nomination. Four years later, Ted Kennedy failed in his bid to wrest the Democratic nomination from President Jimmy Carter in New York by trying to get the party to release delegates bound to Carter.

As Republicans prepare to head to Cleveland, a group of delegates wants to toss Donald Trump from the top of the ticket. Polls show that Trump would be the most unpopular major-party nominee in history, but the “Dump Trump” coalition still has decades of history trending against it. Since primaries and caucuses became the principal means of nominee selection 40 years ago, no candidate in either party who has entered a convention with the most delegates has failed to secure the nomination.

If nothing else, anti-Trump forces should be able to succeed in adding drama to the roll-call vote on his nomination, which in recent conventions have been ratified by acclamation as a show of party unity. Trump’s former presidential rivals, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, will have a chance to formally receive the delegate votes they won during the primaries. Even after the bitter contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, the Democratic Party arranged for Clinton to appear on the convention floor and call for a suspension of the roll-call vote to demonstrate her support and rally her backers behind Obama. Democrats are hoping Bernie Sanders will agree to a similar maneuver this summer in Philadelphia, although it seems unlikely the same will happen with Republicans in Cleveland.

The Delegates

More than 4,000 Democratic delegates and nearly 2,500 Republican delegates are the worker bees of the two conventions. They’ll come from all 50 states and the territories, elected by different means: State parties have varying and often complicated ways of choosing who they send. Their chief responsibility is to vote for the nominees for president and vice president, the party platform, and other more procedural motions.

Both parties have some delegates that enter the convention unpledged to any candidate, but the Democrats have hundreds more. The “superdelegates” were created before the 1984 election as a backstop for the party establishment, which wanted to exert some control over the nominating process and possibly stop rank-and-file voters from choosing a potentially toxic candidate. The superdelegates, who now number more than 700 and include members of Congress, governors, and the former presidents (like Hillary Clinton’s husband!), have never defied the will of the voters. Despite the short-lived efforts of Clinton in 2008 and possibly Sanders this year, they likely won’t in Philadelphia, either.

The vast majority of the delegates in the two parties are bound by party rules to vote for a certain presidential candidate according to the outcome of their state’s primary or caucus. As opposed to the superdelegates, the job of being a regular, pledged delegate is neither particularly glamorous nor powerful. “Generally it’s like a badge of honor,” Zelizer said. “It’s the ability to participate in a historic political moment.”

“Barring some really unexpected turn at the Republican convention,” he added, “they don’t really have much power other than to raise their hand and vote. It’s not as if when they go back to their states they’re these power brokers because they’ve been at the convention. It really is largely symbolic.”

The Platform and Rules

Delegates are also responsible for voting on the party platform. As with the nominees, the vote on the convention floor, usually held early in the week, has in recent years amounted to an affirmation of a document written weeks beforehand by committee. There’s good reason to believe that the platform vote in both parties could be more interesting this year, however.

On the Republican side, delegates who opposed Trump in the primaries are expected to push for a conservative platform that affirms party orthodoxy on a number of issues from which the presumptive nominee has wavered or outright departed. That could include support for free trade, staunch opposition to abortion, lower taxes, and so on. Concerned with Trump’s ideological inconsistency and his willingness to change positions on a whim, conservatives want either to force him to embrace longstanding GOP policies or ensure that his flexibility on the issues doesn’t lead to a permanent shift in the party.

For their part, Democrats tried to open up their drafting process early on, holding regional hearings throughout the country in a bid to engage a broader cross-section of the party. The platform committee heard testimony from 114 witnesses over several weeks, party officials said. In the past, the committee met in one location for just two days.

Bernie Sanders may complicate that effort. He has tried to leverage his endorsement of Clinton to get a more progressive platform and eliminate superdelegates from future nominating battles. In the draft platform adopted in June, Sanders and his supporters won language endorsing the abolition of the death penalty—a first in party history—and declaring that “all Americans should earn at least $15 an hour.” Both of those positions are more progressive than the positions Clinton took on the campaign trail. Sanders lost his bid to have the platform oppose ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal Obama negotiated that Clinton has recently come out against.

How much does the platform matter, anyway? It’s mainly a statement of principles. Candidates up and down the ballot—including the presidential nominee—are under no obligation to endorse or run on every item. As Zelizer said, “It’s usually the fights over the platform that matter more than the platform.” Uncontroversial platforms, ratified during the afternoon, away from the glare of network broadcasts, are quickly forgotten. The debates that command attention, however, show how the parties are divided and how their principles are shifting.

For party insiders, the most consequential document is the set of rules that govern both the convention and the next election’s nominating process. Democrats don’t actually vote on their rules at the convention, so if Sanders is going to win the abolition of superdelegates, it wouldn’t happen until later. But Republican delegates on the rules committee are set to meet the week before the convention to decide how everything should go down, and party leaders are reportedly trying to ensure that the anti-Trump delegates can’t use the rules to stage a revolt in Cleveland. Technically, the 112-member panel doesn’t have to rely on the rules used at past conventions; the party could theoretically allow pledged delegates to vote for someone other than Trump during the roll call. But NBC News reported in late June that the rules committee was considering an amendment that would simply adopt the rules for the 2012 convention, essentially blocking any further changes and ensuring Trump’s nomination. The convention will also adopt rules for the party going forward, although those are often amended at quarterly RNC meetings after the convention.

For Clinton and Trump, the goal is to keep all those squabbles about the platform and rules—the nuts and bolts of a political party—in the background, and the spotlight on themselves. Conventions in the modern era are less about the parties than the candidates, and this is their showcase. For two polarizing nominees disliked by a majority of the public, these eight days in July may be their last, best chance to get millions of anxious, dissatisfied Americans to embrace them, and their visions for the future.

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