Necessary but Needing Reform

We should keep political conventions, even if they need a little modernizing.

Balloons fall from the ceiling following U.S. President George W. Bush's speech accepting his party's nomination on the final night of the Republican National Convention September 2, 2004 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
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For more than 150 years, national party conventions have performed four basic functions—nominate candidates for president and vice president, mobilize voters, adopt platforms, and govern the parties—but their fundamental political role has changed.

Reform efforts in both parties in the 1960s and 1970s and the advent of television as the dominant medium caused a proliferation of primaries and requirements that most delegates selected in the states be pledged to vote for a specific candidate in the conventions. Together these changes converted conventions from deliberative bodies, where decisions of consequence were made, into controlled four-night television miniseries. These changes have led the major broadcast networks to reduce their coverage of conventions to a mere fraction of what they did 50 years ago when they first started broadcasting the gatherings.

Some contend that we should do away with conventions. A better approach is to keep them, but make them more relevant to the 21st century.

More Americans pay attention to politics during conventions than at any time in the four-year electoral cycle other than general election week itself. With a relatively high number of undecided people watching, conventions are the parties' greatest opportunity to educate, but require significant change.

Political parties' philosophy, organization, and functions should be based on members' public policy positions as well as matters of governance. With party platforms losing relevance, conventions currently do not provide delegates any significant role in making policy decisions. The vast majority of delegates to conventions are selected according to allegiance to specific candidates for president. Selecting a presidential candidate is the most important task of our parties, but they also have to offer clearly defined policy positions.

The public has an obligation to learn and understand better the parties' policies. Conventions could teach, but they currently offer little to the public in this regard. Parties also cheat themselves in not taking advantage of the opportunity to train and educate those people who attend each convention, and those who participate through modern communications techniques.

Ban caucuses. Revamped conventions, converted to larger, short-term "political universities," would create a new agenda for training delegates on issues and campaign and party-building techniques. Understanding and appreciation of relevant political issues and functions would be enhanced and expanded.

Delegate selection should also be revised. Primaries should begin in mid-March or later, with a 90-day time frame. Front-loading should be discouraged. States permitted to go early in the process, i.e., outside the "window," should be rotated every four years. Caucuses should be prohibited in order to simplify rules of procedure and encourage greater participation. To make platforms relevant again, party policies should reflect more than just the short-term popularity of individual candidates for president. They should include and reflect the studied opinions of party professionals, i.e., so-called superdelegates, whose role should be preserved in the Democratic Party and expanded in the Republican Party.

Conventions should be held in September, not in the summer, and on weekends—Thursday through Sunday—rather than during weekdays. This would increase the media audience size and the intensity of public interest because of the proximity to Election Day.

Finally, Congress should authorize statutory authority for parties to adopt and enforce rules and schedules so as to preclude a repetition of the Florida and Michigan problems. Congress should not adopt specific delegate selection plans but simply empower the parties to do so and provide them with the authority to enforce their rules.

These changes would restore conventions' importance, improve the political education of activists and the public, and make the parties more responsible to the larger political system.