As I write this blog, the Republicans had just wrapped up their national convention in Tampa, Florida, and Tuesday, September 4 began the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both these major party conventions will be elaborate exercises attracting a very high level of media interest throughout the United States. We all know that the 2012 presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. So it might be reasonable to ask, what is the point of a party convention?
In the abstract, the primary purpose of the convention remains the official selection of the party’s candidate for the presidency. In the early decades of the history of the United States, congressional delegations met and determined who their parties’ candidates would be. Dissension led to an expansion of the system to a broader group of party leaders in the 1830s, who met in what was called a convention to make the choice. It was still a matter of party insiders deciding who to put forward, however, and the process only became more democratic after the controversial 1968 Democratic convention, when anti-war activists demonstrated to protest their lack of voice in the process. As a result, both the Republican and Democratic parties today hold primary elections in individual states, and those elections determine who the delegates will be who will participate in the conventions. Since none of this has any official constitutional basis, each party and each state sets its own rules for how the primary will be held, who can participate, and whether the states’ delegates will each support the candidates they stood for in the primaries or whether they will vote as a bloc in favor of the candidate with the most support. In recent years, the results of primaries have led less successful candidates to withdraw, so the nominee has been known long before the convention, which simply officially endorses the nomination.
The convention also votes on the vice presidential candidate and on the policy platform on which its candidate must run. Today both of these are also determined in advance and simply endorsed at the convention. So what was once a significant substantive role for conventions is now largely symbolic.
The convention continues to be important as the launching of the candidate’s official campaign. It provides an exceptional opportunity for public outreach, and each party carefully selects its roster of speakers and apportions them time slots designed to rally the faithful and attract undecided and independent voters to the campaign. While both major party candidates have been campaigning against each other in public appearances and through media advertisements for months, it is only after the convention that they hold formal debates.
Of course the Republican and Democratic parties are not the only ones holding conventions, and numerous other parties will endorse their own candidates. The challenge for third party candidates is to assemble a campaign organization that can meet the requirements to get the candidate’s name on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, since each state has its own rules and requirements for filing fees and signatures. In 2000, the Green Party and its allies managed to get the name of its candidate, Ralph Nader, on 42 state ballots.
So while it may seem from here that the U.S. presidential campaign has been underway for a long time, the real campaign is beginning now, and will continue until election day, which is always the first Tuesday in November: this year, November 6.