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Why conventions still matter (+video)

Yes, they have become costly infomercials. But political conventions can clarify – and sometimes even electrify. 

(Page 3 of 6)

Daley jumped to his feet slashing a finger across his own neck, shouting words this magazine can't print. It was a madhouse.

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"I was tear-gassed," says Berman. He doesn't make a big deal of it. Lots of people were.

In his organizing heyday, Berman got annoyed when Democratic graybeards would tell him to run conventions the way they had back in the old days. After the 2004 convention, his wife said, "You're not doing this anymore."

Why not? "Remember those old-timers telling you how to run the '84 campaign?" she asked. "It's somebody else's turn." He's no longer involved. Who better to assess what's changed since 1968?

"The candidates are elected long before we get there," Berman says, for openers. "I don't think anyone cares about the platform.... It used to be you were gathering together the party organization. But now [we] elect delegates. They're not part of the party structure."

He adds, "And communication changed."

Let me interpret: The basic tasks at conventions have stayed the same for decades. The participants examine delegates' credentials, decide on rules, vote on a party platform, then nominate and choose candidates in what for 48 years has been a four-day event.

But Berman is summarizing two big changes. First, the rise of primaries – and consequent decline in the power of party bosses. That transformed what kind of delegates came to the convention.

How did that happen? In one reasonably accurate word: Vietnam. While Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968, the party was so fractured over the war that the winners tried to placate the anti-Vietnam faction by allowing McGovern to chair a commission recommending changes in the nominating process. Then, in a fit of idealism, it adopted them.

It had already been years since candidates went to a "brokered" convention, where party bosses, controlling most of the delegates, traded votes to pick a nominee. The last Republican multiballot convention was in 1948, and for the Democrats, in 1952.

The McGovern Commission recommendations, many of which Republicans adopted, too, paved the way for an increase in presidential primaries. They've risen from 14 in 1968 to 39 in 2012. That didn't just dim the chances of a brokered convention. Primaries forced candidates to enter and win delegates while the media breathlessly reported their rising totals.

The last time delegates arrived not sure who the nominee would be was the GOP convention in 1976, when it seemed as though Ronald Reagan might beat then-President Gerald Ford.

"Every seat filled an hour before the proceedings," Gaylord remembers. "Nancy Reagan comes into the hall and the place erupted. Betty Ford comes in – same thing. I'll never forget when the first person for Ford got up. Cheers and boos for 10 minutes."

Since then, there's been no such suspense. This year Mr. Romney effectively clinched the nomination after winning the Texas primary May 29.

The changes in communication have been no less dramatic. The first convention broadcast over radio came in 1924 – when only 60,000 Americans owned a radio. When Truman got up to speak in 1948, some 347,000 homes had TVs. By 1960, close to 35 million Americans watched John F. Kennedy's acceptance speech; 100 million watched all or part of both conventions. And in 2012?

"Forget Twitter," Berman says. "Add up Facebook and PBS, Internet, CNN. Anyone interested can find coverage." Suddenly, candidates became far more interested in talking to those at home than to those in the convention hall.

Freed of the nomination battle, able to reach millions of voters at fiber-optic speed, candidates can't resist making conventions exactly the infomercial Mr. Koppel described. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

GOP pollster David Winston demurs. "If you just want to know who's the nominee? Yeah, then it's an infomercial." But like many other experts, Mr. Winston makes clear that there are far more valuable things about the conventions than finding out who the nominees are. He puts himself in the shoes of a voter. "I'd look at it this way: What is this party presenting to me? Do they understand [me]?"


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