Few Americans under 50 can remember when national party conventions were anything more than infomercials. The last one with any real excitement was the Democratic convention of 1968, in Chicago, which followed perhaps the most turbulent presidential primary race ever: The incumbent withdrew, the strongest challenger was assassinated, and an unpopular war split the party in two. The result: Protests, riots, and chaos — in other words, great television.
Since then, conventions have been tame affairs. Everyone knows months ahead of time who will get the nomination, and the only suspense is over minor stuff like whether Hillary’s name will be placed in nomination, or which speakers will get the best time slots. Decades ago, when conventions were full of intrigue and horse trading, they were broadcast gavel-to-gavel, and working one was the most prestigious job for a reporter. Today it’s like covering the opening ceremonies of the Nebraska high-school volleyball championship. What happened?
In brief, the answer is: Too much democracy. In the 19th century, primaries were unheard of, and for most of the 20th century only about a dozen states held them (and most of these were non-binding). The great majority of delegates were chosen and controlled by urban and state bosses, who would get together at the convention, hash things out, and tell their delegates how to vote. It often took a lot of hashing, because in the pre-Reagan era, political parties embraced much greater diversity of opinion–for example, southern segregationists and northern civil-rights activists among the Democrats, or northeastern patricians and heartland McCarthy/Goldwater supporters among the Republicans.
The Democrats’ 1968 experience changed all that. Hubert Humphrey, the incumbent vice-president, got the nomination without winning a single primary, and many among the rank and file protested vociferously. After that convention’s violence, the party changed its rules to encourage popular participation and sharply curtail the rule of bosses. The Republicans followed suit–sometimes because state laws revised by the Democrats forced them to do so–and by the next election cycle, the days of the smoke-filled room were gone forever (the Democrats’ “superdelegate” scheme, which was meant to bring back a little old-fashioned bossism, makes no difference, since this year’s race made clear that they’re expected to simply ratify the popular choice).
Let the voters decide for themselves, and in most cases they will flock to a single favorite, or at most two opposing ones. In the old days, this wasn’t true; bosses would publicly back a candidate with no chance as a holding tactic, while waiting to sell their real support to the highest bidder. But individual citizens, unlike bosses, control only one vote and get only one chance to cast it, so they’re reluctant to waste it on someone they know won’t win. If they can tolerate the front-runner, they’ll vote for him in hopes of wrapping the contest up early; if they can’t, and if they’re not particularly zealous about a single issue, they’ll vote for his strongest rival.
The expectation that every race will boil down to two candidates is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the resultant rapid winnowing-out means the battle will almost always be over long before the convention starts. That’s fine for empowering the masses and giving the people a voice and all that civics-class stuff, but from an entertainment standpoint, it robs conventions of all their drama.