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National party conventions: delegated to ideology?

By Lawrence J. Goodrich / October 7, 1988


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Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 391 pp. $27.50.

IT used to be that political conventions actually nominated presidential candidates.

Those days are long gone.

Byron Shafer, Mellon professor of American government at Oxford University, explains what has happened to the political conventions, and why, in ``Bifurcated Politics: Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention.''

In eight chapters, Shafer traces the history of the convention, the changes it has undergone, and the sometimes unexpected results. The Founding Fathers intended the Electoral College to nominate presidential candidates. But by 1832, the power to nominate presidential candidates had passed to political party conventions as we know them.

The Republican and Democratic conventions of 1952, however, were the last in which the nomination was decided by the convention itself. After that, the decision shifted to the process of selecting convention delegates. Although reforms in both parties following the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago institutionalized the change, it was a reality well before then, Shafer says.

Shafer attributes this shift to a ``nationalization'' of American politics brought on by the growth of the federal government, a decline in local political party influence, rising public affluence, and the appearance of the mass media.

Beginning in 1956, the nomination came to depend on delegates bound to specific candidates chosen directly by the voters. in primaries, caucuses, or conventions. These voters were getting their political information from a variety of sources, including national newspapers, newsmagazines, and radio and television news programs. Their concerns were far more national in scope than before.

Once the nomination had moved out of the convention, that assembly changed enormously, Shafer says. The delegates in each party became much more radicalized. After the 1968 reforms, both Democratic and Republican convention delegates were found to be widely to the left and right, respectively, of the rank and file who identified with their parties.

In addition, the role of elected party officials was drastically diminished as they tried to stay out of political trouble by not choosing sides in multi-candidate primaries. Thus, more and more often, they were passed over as convention delegates by the candidates' campaign organizations. Things got so bad for Democratic officials that the party had to resort to artificial means to ensure they would have a voice at the convention - as so-called ``superdelegates.''

Candidates were thus deprived of the support of party officials and organizations, yet needed to cobble together nationwide organizations to contest primary elections effectively. They were forced to rely on interest groups, such as the National Education Association, or issue organizations, such as the Moral Majority, to provide organizational skills, Shafer says. These groups thus usurped a large part of the local party organizations' traditional convention role. They supplied large numbers of delegates and helped make the proceedings far more ideological.