Historically speaking the quadrennial political conventions over the past several years have largely been an incredible bore. To participate in them is an expensive, four days to a week of insane hysteria filled with meetings, drinking, carousing, partying, and noise–plus a few votes. Office holders and their followers from around the country gather to rejuvenate themselves and their financial coffers as they prepare for the insane forthcoming two months of virtual non-stop campaigning. The party faithful are thanked then sent off on their mission to elect their party’s standard bearer and everyone else on the party ticket.
Conventions are four-day media events with the key moments kept for prime time—except if you are unlucky like George McGovern who gave his acceptance speech well after midnight. Even design of the convention floor is set up to be a podium protruding directly into the face of the television camera(s). The host city makes money; the candidates raise money; while the delegates spend money. It is a circus of non-stop smiling in front of the cameras and looking like you are having the time of your life.
For the media, the delegates are immaterial except for sidebar stories and human-interest notes. Conventions have become such a waste of time that the major networks—unlike most of the cable channels—have resolved to spend a maximum of three hours a night on the convention. Where once upon a time all the television news stars—Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley—and Howard K Smith—bragged about providing gavel to gavel coverage to the show, today network executives bemoan the money they are losing running a diet of convention blabber.
There were interesting platform debates for the party insiders. Barack Obama made his national debut as the party keynoter and Bill Clinton almost sailed off into oblivion with his interminable address. Clint Eastwood, while speaking at the convention, scored a never before seen event by addressing an empty chair.
Conventions do add, however, an important dimension to the presidential election process. They provide the two candidates and their running mates the chance for their one solo appearance before the entire national audience. Together with all the other speeches, demonstrations, balloons, and noise these speeches will drive the respective parties’ poll numbers up, however briefly. (Interestingly, for all the speech writers slaving over convention speeches, concocting a compelling speech to be delivered with no audience and no applause lines is much harder than usual.
Getting a post-convention polling bump is also harder. Media experts, analysts, and talking heads will have much less time to create news from the convention. Each party’s four days will be over with a whimper; this week for the Democrats and next week for the Republicans.
What is not known is how much of a distraction President Trump will seek to create while the Democrats are “conventioning”. Will there even be any discussion of the respective party platforms or will the passage of the party platforms finally concede the fact that platforms really do not mean anything? Will the Democrats follow tradition next week and lay low while their rivals are “meeting” or will they too seek to create a diversion while the GOP is nominating Trump for a second term? Will the President create a crowd for his acceptance speech even if it is delivered at the White House?
As recently as four years ago there were floor fights over the platform during the afternoon. In 1968, there were police riots and fighting in the streets of Chicago. In 1952, there were three ballots before Adlai Stevenson received his party’s nomination. Unlike major league baseball in 2020, however, starting tonight at the Democratic Convention even the “players” will not be on the field.