Covering political conventions

America’s national political conventions are actually two big productions presented simultaneously for two quite different but interrelated audiences – the convention-goers and the mass audience reached through the media.

First, there are thousands of convention delegates, alternates, media people and camp followers inside whatever big arena the national parties have chosen to host their conventions. It is critically important to keep all parties occupied, entertained and happily participating in the proceedings of the convention as they are the most immediate object of the events on the platform and they provide the backdrop for whatever drama may be playing out behind the scenes.

The much larger audience is the one provided by the electronic and print media.

The parties and the candidates know that they are putting on a show for the approval of the mass audience. The conventions are carefully crafted and choreographed to send positive messages to this larger audience. The convention hall is looked on as just one big sound stage where the production can be mounted and where the delegates are bit part players as the story unfolds.

This “bifurcated” nature of national conventions is documented by Byron E. Shafer in his book Bifurcated Politics: Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention.

Those who plan and execute conventions know their history well. The debacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago is imprinted in their collective memory, and they know that such an angry and disruptive spectacle must be avoided at all costs. The professionals know that the fall campaign, while it may have started informally weeks or months earlier, only begins officially after the nomination roll call and one candidate has been officially designated to carry the party banner into the general election. The professionals also know the rule that the party that holds the most harmonious convention and puts on the best show has a real advantage for victory in November.

Everyone on stage and back stage knows that the objective is to nominate the party’s strongest candidate (the one already blessed by the presidential primaries and caucuses), adopt the rules, adopt the platform and resolutions, showcase the party’s stars and next generation of leaders, create enthusiasm among the activists and interest groups represented inside the arena and get out of town without giving the media anything negative to write about. The parties and candidates know that a successful and positive convention is likely to lead to a post-convention “bounce” in the polls of usually 5 to 10 percent. That, along with a fired- up party base, is what they want.

Since at least 1972, the conventions ceased being the center of decision-making on who the nominee will be, and the presidential primaries became pre-eminent in that role. The role of the conventions changed to making the nomination official and launching the fall campaign with as much positive coverage as possible. The media know this too and are determined not to play the game so easily. They look for dissent, conflict and controversy. They know that party harmony and praise for the nominee do not make good copy. So, they seek out the dissidents, the disgruntled, the outrageous and those who are simply interesting and colorful. The media people have their own ideas about what is newsworthy and what the framing of the convention message will be, and they pursue their objectives without much regard for the objectives of the organizers in charge of the convention.

This difference in objectives is especially evident in the hours of coverage devoted to the national conventions by television and especially by the networks. From 1952 (when convention coverage by television really got started) until 1980 and 1984, the three major national networks were dominant in the news fields and in convention coverage. ABC, CBS, and NBC would generally provide “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the conventions. When the conventions were in session, the networks were there. After all, it was summer, and summer reruns had become boring by August anyway, so there was an audience for such political fare, especially if a good floor fight was in the offing. Beginning in 1980, the networks cut their coverage and reduced it more sharply in 1984, and the audiences declined.

As the parties became increasingly concerned about putting on a good show, the television executives became less and less interested. At first they cut back to providing coverage only in prime time, and then they reduced this to only an hour wrap-up at the end of the evening. The cable networks, especially CNN, Fox News, and CNBC stepped into the void to some extent by providing more extensive coverage than the broadcast networks did; however, only CSPAN stayed with the traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage of the earlier era.

Ironically, today the more the parties and candidates focus their attention on getting positive coverage, the less likely the mass media, especially television, are going to give them more than perfunctory coverage, except for the intense focus on internal conflict or the introduction of a compelling new face like Sarah Palin in 2008. This is one reason why we are now seeing a shift to the new media platforms.

In 2008, the Obama campaign pioneered the use of the internet and new technologies to rally their troops in the field and stimulate favorable convention coverage. Both sides will undoubtedly take this to new heights in 2012. For example, the delegates and the campaigns will certainly make good use of the social media, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, to keep up with each other, with each breaking news story and rumor, and to communicate with their friends and supporters back home. Bloggers of the right and the left will certainly be in abundance. It has been reported that Time magazine will keep tabs on the delegates and get them news and solicit commentary. There will undoubtedly be other innovative uses of the new media unveiled by both parties.

In April, Google officials announced that the company had been selected to be the official “social platform” for the Republican National Convention. This means Google will live-stream all of the speeches during the convention and sponsor hangouts with the major speakers via YouTube. They also planned to try to reach the same agreement with the Democrats.

After the conventions, the candidates and their entourage rush on to a bus tour or fly around to the key battleground states. The media rush on to a fresh examination of the vice-presidential nominee or signs of internal dissention among the various factions that make up the candidate’s core supporters and to how it is all playing with the independents. The spotlight shifts to the fall campaign, and especially to the debates that are just around the corner. The polls record the ups and downs of each candidate and both camps as the general election unfolds. Soon it is the dawning of November and it all ends.

So, why even have quadrennial political conventions? The answer is that they are still functional for the parties, for the candidates and for the overall political system. Nominations must be made official; the party activists need to come together and celebrate old victories and add to the tradition, while also discovering new faces. The conventions still “work,” even though they are not the kind of television drama they once were, and there are flaws and shortcomings with every plan advanced to replace them. Like live television, they are an anachronism from an earlier era, but tamed down and prepackaged though they may be, they still serve a purpose.



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