National political conventions have their moments, but are they still news?

Within a two-week span, both big political parties are holding their national conventions and, once again, many commentators are asking the question “why?”

Imagine the job of a civic teacher trying to explain what a national convention is. Technically, the parties choose presidential nominees at a convention, but not really.

Primary voters choose nominees. In fact, it’s been exactly 60 years since either major party’s convention went to a second ballot. In the 1952 Democratic Convention, it took three ballots to nominate Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. He was second to Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver on the first two. (In 1924, the Democrats took 103 ballots!)

The last unsettled convention was the Republican gathering in 1976, where neither President Gerald Ford, nor his challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, arrived in Kansas City with enough delegates to secure the nomination. Ford still won on the first ballot.

Once, of course, that’s what conventions were for, picking a nominee. The first one was held in 1831 in Baltimore by a historical relic called the Anti-Masonic Party, which decided to forego state caucuses and meet nationally.

The next year the Democratic Party followed suit, twenty four years later the new Republican Party did the same and conventions became a part of the political landscape.

For most of that time they were very big deals, peaking in the 1950s and 1960s. All three networks covered them every night, so if you watched television at all, you watched the conventions.

No more, with the advent of satellite, cable and the Internet smart phone age you can easily ignore the conventions and most people do. The networks don’t like to cover them because ratings are minuscule.

ABC’s Ted Koppel certainly saw this coming. He packed up and left the GOP convention in 1996 because “there was no news going on.”

Are they still capable of producing news and/or drama?

Perhaps. After the close 1976 convention vote, Ford let Reagan speak at the end. Reagan, having no idea of what the future held for him, responded with an address so moving, news cameras captured photos of delegates filing out of Kemper Arena, some weeping, convinced they’d nominated the wrong man. Ford lost.—M.B.

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2012-09-06 digital edition

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