National party conventions: delegated to ideology?


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.

Not only had the players in the convention hall changed, but what they did at the convention had changed as well. Conflict no longer occurred between coalitions trying to secure the nomination, but rather between the nominee-to-be and the delegates - sometimes those of a runner-up, sometimes his own.

The nominee was interested in a smooth convention to launch his presidential campaign, Shafer says. The delegates were more interested in trying to undo the foreordained nomination or to enact party platforms with positions more radical than the nominee's.

Today, such struggles center on the platform and the vice-presidential nomination. Their resolution can be crucial to the nominee. George McGovern lost control of the 1972 Democratic convention to a fight over the vice-presidential nomination. As a result he gave his important televised acceptance speech after 3 a.m. Eastern time.

The 1976 Ford and 1980 Carter organizations set the pattern for containing and smoothing over such convention conflict when they acceded to embarrassing platform planks.

Shafer also reviews the changing nature of TV convention coverage. The gavel-to-gavel coverage the networks provided beginning with the 1952 conventions became the standard.

Yet even at the beginning, Shafer says, the conventions usually attracted only about half the normal TV audience. This led to a continuing struggle between network news divisions and the programming and marketing departments over whether gavel-to-gavel coverage was justified.

As time wore on, commercial considerations began to carry the day. By 1984 the networks offered only 40 percent of the coverage they had provided before, Shafer says.

This led to a qualitative shift in the coverage as well. Network editorial decisions presented to the viewing public a convention very different from the one taking place in the hall itself - creating what Shafer terms the ``bifurcated convention.'' The 1980 flap over whether Gerald Ford might be offered the vice-presidential nomination on the Reagan ticket played itself out before the viewing public while the delegates on the floor were unaware it was even taking place.

What of the future? Shafer predicts that the nomination will not return to the convention, mostly because the public doesn't really want it to. If a future convention actually brokered a nomination in the old style, he estimates, public displeasure with the results would ensure that it didn't happen again.

Tested against the 1988 primaries and conventions, Shafer's analysis holds up well. He correctly foresaw that the 1988 Southern regional primary would not strengthen the South's influence in determining the Democratic nominee.

What Shafer does not address is whether we, the people, have made things better or worse in our tinkering with the nomination process. Do we get better candidates from the primaries than through the old ``smoke-filled rooms'' of party conventions? Is it in the public interest to have ideological convention delegates dragging the parties further and further to the right and left? If we stopped rubber-stamping nominations in party conventions and went instead to a national primary, one direction Shafer suggests we are headed, would party conventions continue? Would political parties themselves survive at the presidential level? Any serious student of American politics would do well to ponder these questions.

Lawrence J. Goodrich is on the Monitor staff.

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