The parties will have to make their own decision whether to continue the conventions without the federal subsidy. They might well, since the conventions are still a valuable tool for rewarding party workers and motivating the base voters of each party, something that could loom particularly large this year in an election that may revolve even more than usually on whose loyalists turn out in the fall (partisan voters do tend to watch their own convention more than the other guys').
Conventions weren't part of the original plan. The founders by and large hated parties (tellingly, they called them factions) and probably would have hated partisan conventions, which were invented only after they were gone.
Conventions were originally thought of as a reform of a system in which congressmen picked the candidates. The first party conventions were before the election of 1832, and nominated Henry Clay to challenge President Andrew Jackson. Delegates arrived at both those party conventions knowing who would get the nomination. Just like this year. But that hasn't stopped conventions from convening every four years since.
Even before the federal subsidy is yanked, the conventions are evolving. Once a fixture of midsummer, the Democratic convention this year will actually be after Labor Day, coinciding with the traditional kickoff of fall campaigning. The Democrats had already cut their convention to three days, recognizing a reality that broadcasters weren't going to pay attention to their activities on Labor Day anyway. The broadcasters then told the Republicans they wouldn't cover their Monday sessions either, and Hurricane Isaac has now finished the job of washing out day one.
"Despite separation between church and state, Mother Nature is helping to ensure that the conventions get trimmed from four days to three," said Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of the Kantar/media analysis group. "With Dems really only doing three days, and now Republicans only doing three days, in 2016 there will be pressure to only do three days."
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., saw this coming. He has served as parliamentarian of the last four GOP conventions. He recalls that in 2008 a Katrina-class hurricane was barreling for the Gulf Coast as the convention convened in Minnesota. His staff got together and figured out a way to compress all the legally required business of the convention — rules, the platform and the nomination of the ticket — into a few hours so delegates from the Gulf Coast, including the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi, could rush home to respond to the looming disaster.
This Plan B went unneeded. The hurricane blew out, and the convention went ahead as planned over four days to nominate John McCain and Sarah Palin.
While Dreier developed a plan to effectively eliminate the Republican convention, that doesn't mean he would. "There will be a degree of uncertainty about what party conventions will look like in the future," he said as he headed to Tampa. "They are going through a bit of a change. But I don't agree they are unnecessary."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Michael Oreskes is senior managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press. Reach him at moreskes(at)ap.org.
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