Why Party Conventions?

Another political-convention season gets under way with both Republican and Democrat nominees a foregone conclusion. This year, because of a presidential-primary season compressed into February and March, Americans have known for months who the nominees would be.

This may explain why so few voters are paying attention to the campaign. It also gives rise to a question more commonly asked with each four-year cycle - why have conventions at all?

In a way, the voters have themselves to blame for the conclaves' perceived blandness. Once upon a time, convention delegates were expected to go to conventions, examine the nominee wannabes, and choose the one they thought would best represent the party and win the election.

But voters in both parties wanted more say in the selection process: Through primaries, caucuses, and local conventions, they began choosing delegates who pledged to vote for particular candidates. So the drama shifted from the convention itself to the delegate-selection process. Caucuses and primaries now provide the thrills conventions once provided.

The introduction of more "democracy" into the selection process has also radicalized both parties' conventions, giving left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans more influence than their share of the electorate would justify. At one point Democratic convention delegates were so divorced from Democrat officeholders that the party had to create appointed "superdelegates" to ensure officeholders a role at the convention and drag the party back toward the center.

Conventions nowadays are contests, not between candidates for nomination, but between the nominee and convention delegates. The struggle revolves around platform planks and (sometimes) vice-presidential nominations. The worst example was the 1972 Democratic convention, which spun so out of control that it doomed Sen. George McGovern's campaign. (Mr. Dole has had to wrestle with that concern this year.)

Still, conventions help the parties to organize themselves. They allow the airing of issues between disparate factions. And, while the major networks no longer provide gavel-to-gavel coverage, conventions still provide a way for the parties to showcase their candidates and ideas and a mechanism to launch the campaigns.

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