For both parties, conventions could be an election factor this time

  • Paul Green

    Paul Green

 
 
Posted6/12/2016 1:00 AM

Coming in July, both major political parties will hold four-day national conventions to nominate their presidential tickets. And for the first time in decades, Republican and Democratic leaders are concerned about (1) controlling the convention's political message, and (2) having their convention become a key factor in the November election.

Historically, national party conventions were noisy or even "messy" events where delegates discussed candidate qualifications and platform positions. Then along came television! Starting in 1956, no convention in either party has needed a second presidential ballot to pick their nominee. Debate and dissent has been gradually replaced by well-orchestrated displays of unity and togetherness.

 

To be sure, there have been exceptions over the last 60 years of love-and-kisses conventions, e.g., 1968 Chicago Democrats 1968, 1972 Miami Democrats, 1976 Kansas City Republicans. However, it must be remembered that none of these conventions went to a second ballot, and given the televised convention political disharmony, all three of these conventions produced losing general election Presidential candidates.

For the record, I am WGN Radio's political analyst, and in that capacity, I attended 14 national conventions (seven Democratic and seven Republican) between 1984 and 2008. During this period, it became obvious that these conventions had become "controlled coronations" that ratified the nomination that had been decided by voters in the spring primaries and caucuses.

Everything at these conventions was controlled by the nominee and party leaders -- including the platform, agenda, speaking slots and television time.

Since major networks only covered one hour of the convention during its first three nights, convention managers stacked their best and most interesting

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speakers during this hour. In short, the entire proceedings had become more like a made-for-TV movie than an actual political free-for-all gathering.

Can the 2016 national convention break this boring and routine nominating process? The answer, to quote former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: "You betcha."

The Republicans -- Cleveland

Donald Trump may be the wildest "wild card" in national convention history. He thrives on confrontations, and he is not "choosy" about his foes -- including Republicans. It must be remembered that Trump is a GOP newcomer, so party loyalty to him could become an oxymoron. Thus, the Republicans' dilemma: They do not want a Hillary Clinton presidency, but at the same time, they fear a "Trumpized" Republican Party. And, Cleveland will be the first battleground as to whether their undisputed top primary and caucus vote-getter becomes a party insider or remains an "outsider."

One final thought on Cleveland: The platform committee will most likely be the first indication as to Trump's desire to play GOP ball. However, given his proclivity for saying what he thinks -- no matter the target -- Republicans should worry more about his platform comments rather than the actual written planks.

The Democrats -- Philadelphia

Unlike Trump, Bernie Sanders has run for office many times, but like Trump, he has never run under this convention's party label -- Democrat. Sanders' appeal to young voters and progressives made him a true challenger to Clinton, but he lost. The big question Philadelphia Democrats face is how to deal with a huge amount of delegates many of whom have bought Sanders' mantra that the nominating process was rigged.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Unless Clinton and Sanders work out a pre-convention deal, there will be a fight over the platform, and it will most likely be decided on the convention floor. If this battle gets ugly, that will be televised and zoomed all over social media, making party unity become more of a hope than a reality. It must be remembered a large chunk of Sanders' delegates are not party regulars or probably not even party members -- so calls for loyalty may be a stretch for the convention managers.

In sum, both parties face a real possibility that philosophical and political differences among their convention delegates may go very public. One can imagine the cable news networks going full blast to uncover any and all divisiveness inside or outside the convention. Indeed, a leading factor in the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign may simply be which party had the least disruptive national convention.

Paul Green is director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Schaumburg.

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