Politics & Policy

The Greatest Show on Earth: Our National Political Conventions

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan at the 2012 Republican convention. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
They offer clues to how the campaigns will unfold and how the winners will govern.

Judging by the past, the upcoming political conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia will materially affect our national politics, even if the winning candidates have already been determined. Conventions matter — to the presidential nominees, to every candidate, national and local, running in 2016, to the party faithful, and to the public seeking the right leadership.

A national convention is a combination of things — it’s a political rally, a Fourth of July celebration, an evangelical tent meeting. It’s political, patriotic, and passionate, susceptible to waves of emotion that can upset the best-laid plans of organizers.

In 1968, for example, Mayor Richard Daley and the other Democratic bosses were not prepared for the confrontational tactics of the anti–Vietnam War movement. The Democratic convention, replete with violent demonstrations, clouds of tear gas, and shouted expletives from the podium, was telecast across the country and helped elect Richard Nixon, who narrowly won the presidency over Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

In 1980, the possibility of a “dream ticket” of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford swept the Republican convention until Ford conceded in a television interview that the arrangement would amount to a “co-presidency.” Reagan immediately dismissed a Reagan-Ford ticket as an “impossible dream” and placed a call to George H. W. Bush, who happily accepted the invitation to be Reagan’s vice president.

There will be three things in particular to watch for at the 2016 conventions: the selection of the vice presidential candidate, the content of the party platform, and the acceptance speech by the nominee. Usually, in all these areas, nominees move to solidify their political base and outline the major themes of the general campaign. I say “usually” because if we look at previous conventions, we sometimes encounter the unexpected.

In 1960, political experts were unanimous in their opinion that Lyndon Johnson, the ultra-powerful Senate majority leader, would never accept second place on the Democratic ticket. But he did agree to be John F. Kennedy’s running mate and helped JFK to carry Texas and enough other states to defeat Nixon by the thinnest of margins.

The two parties’ sharply dissimilar views on abortion have been demonstrated by actions taken at their national conventions.

Ideas matter, to Democrats as well as Republicans. The two parties’ sharply dissimilar views on abortion have been demonstrated by actions taken at their national conventions. Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was denied the opportunity to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention because he wanted to deliver a strong anti-abortion speech. In contrast, pro-life Republicans insisted that the 1996 Republican platform contain the same uncompromising anti-abortion language as in previous platforms — and they prevailed.

Images matter. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter chased Senator Ted Kennedy around the platform in pursuit of the classic raised-arms victory pose. The senator conspicuously evaded the president, leaving a frustrated Carter for all of America to see. In 1976, President Ford graciously invited his challenger, Ronald Reagan, to join him on the platform and say a few words. Before Reagan was through speaking, delegates were wondering if they had nominated the wrong man. And polls revealed that many voters were swayed by Barack Obama’s eloquent 2008 acceptance address and its dramatic setting of soaring Grecian columns and colored lights, a production worthy of Cecil B. DeMille.

Words impact the decisions of voters, as in these acceptance addresses: Bush 41’s fateful “Read my lips — no new taxes” pledge, Barry Goldwater’s defiant “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” promise.

For all these reasons, a national political convention is the Greatest Political Show on Earth, and thanks to Fox News, CNN, C-SPAN and all the other networks and the social media, admission for the American voter is free.

— Lee Edwards is a Distinguished Fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.

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