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Why conventions still matter (+video)

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

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"In 1980," Garin remembers, "significant platform fights were coming to the floor. Delegates took those seriously. We don't have those anymore. Conventions aren't party functions. They're for the nominees."

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Still, though conventions no longer decide nominees and keep platform debates out of public view, does that mean they're irrelevant?

Berman has become deeply skeptical about their value.

"It's the most significant waste of money spent in presidential campaigns," he says. "Hundreds of millions spent to what end?"

Winston casts a qualified vote for conventions, but he has reservations, too. "I don't know if you need the four days," he says.

"It's good to devote eight hours every four years to present our best light to the American people," Gaylord says. He adds, "We probably should get rid of federal funding."

Actually, the conventions are already changing. After staging an outdoor festival the first day, the Democrats will meet in Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena for just two days. Obama will then accept his nomination on the final day in a football stadium, just as he did in Denver in 2008.

Flawed though conventions are, experts offer a few suggestions for people tuning in.

•Listen for solutions.

One way to do this: Use a four-box grid popular with political consultants, two boxes each for what the two parties say about themselves and their opponents. Campaigns are often about exaggerating small differences – the difference between the Obama and Romney plans on government spending are only about 2 percent of gross national product. A chart can help you see the differences.

•Look closely at the vice-presidential nominee.

Do vice presidents determine elections? Hardly ever. "But it says something about the candidate's judgment," Gaylord says.

•Watch the acceptance speech.

"It tells you what they're going to do," Gaylord says, noting it can help clarify whether a nominee is believable or not. Gaylord mentions President Ford's in 1976. His voice softens as he quotes the line he still remembers: "It's from you I come and with you I stand.' "

Garin points out that an effective acceptance speech is also what candidates need. "You want people feeling energized," he says. "Great speeches have that effect."

Even Berman, dubious as he is about the whole process, agrees. What do candidates need to do? "Give a good speech. The rest is folderol."

* * *

Ever since William Jennings Bryan stepped to the podium in 1896, speeches have become a way to fuse intellect and emotion. They give conventions their drama. They are what people remember.

And the best speeches may not belong to the nominees. The Democrats lost in 1984, but Garin calls that year a "rhetorical high point for Democrats," mentioning addresses by Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson. A big speech can propel little-known politicians into national politics – Obama in 2004, yes, but also Humphrey in 1948 and Ronald Reagan in 1964.

The way listeners react to political speeches usually depends on the views of those making them. We don't care about Shakespeare's politics when we watch "Macbeth." But no matter how imaginatively a Republican uses language, a Democrat hearing it will grimace.

At times, though, words transcend politics. There's one such moment in Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2004 Republican convention keynote. Early in the speech he tells how he and his family were stopped at a checkpoint when the Soviets still occupied Austria.

"We didn't have a car," he says. "We were in my uncle's car. It was near dark as we came to the Soviet checkpoint."

The audience, which has been cheering every line, falls silent. "I was a little boy. I was not an action hero then," Mr. Schwarzenegger says. "I remember how scared I was that the soldiers would pull my father or my uncle out of the car, and I would never see them again."

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