So its convention season again and with it come complaints about how irrelevant modern presidential conventions are, typically launched by the very people who have to cover them for the unwashed American masses to view on TV. This is a typical complaint and in many ways it’s quite accurate. Indeed, the last convention in which there was a serious challenge on the floor would be in 1980 when Ted Kennedy tried (in vain) to unhorse Jimmy Carter and the last time a upset could have possibly occurred would probably be 1976, when it was in the realm of possibility (but highly unlikely) that Ronald Reagan could have upset Ford. For those of you keeping score at home, the last time a convention started and the winner was still largely in doubt would probably be in 1960, if not earlier. So the critics are right that national party conventions don’t “matter” as they don’t pick nominees any more, but they are missing the larger point.
Conventions do have a point in our modern age, for while they don’t make important decisions on candidates they do play an important role in communicating with folks other than the national press corps or political junkies like yours truly. It’s hard to remember, but most of the American electorate doesn’t pay attention to politics that much. They live busy lives and the news in general and political news in particular can be both quite boring and rather depressing. In addition, our culture, especially our media culture, doesn’t celebrate people involved in or following politics at all. The professional hardened cynic is almost always the hero in political drama and a loyal party foot soldier or idealist activist is at best a sap and at worst a fraudulent charlatan. Thus why people like Andrew Sullivan or David Brooks might know all about Mitt Romney and this election, lots and lots of Americans still don’t. The result is that conventions play and important role in introducing candidates, showcasing political parties and their messages to millions of Americans who are just now starting to tune into the election. You and I might know who Paul Ryan is but millions of American’s are going to learn about him this week, many for the first time.
In addition, conventions help political parties organize and communicate with themselves. Political science has shown for decades now that large percentages of Americans base their position on issues base on what stance the party they tend to vote for takes. Just think about Republicans and Iraq, they go from supporting a President who boasted at his convention about pursuing a “more humble” foreign policy, to largely supporting the invasion of Iraq, and after no WMD’s turned up many Republican voters still claimed they were the cause of the war and were in fact there. Partisan voters, activists and other party actors can use these events to organize their parties’ positions from the new marriage equality plank the Democratic platform to the GOP platform that now calls for the end of Medicare. The mass media events that are conventions are in some ways the only way to organize political parties with millions of members all over the country.
To be sure the media often covers events where nothing of “importance” is decided. How many people were actually impacted by the O.J. Simpson verdict directly (one of the most watched Television event in recent memory) or who wins a gold medal in coordinated diving? Not many, but the media still covers it none the less. And lots of things treated as political or national news don’t have a big impact on people’s lives either; every year they announce the President’s physical, he’s always fine, and announcing the movement of the Dow Jones Average is a nightly ritual on TV news despite the fact that most Americans have no net wealth, most don’t own any stock and almost none actually hold large quantities of stock in the 30 companies that make up that average. Still it gets reported like clockwork.
The reason these complaints get rolled out every four years is the media itself. First of all they rarely take place in New York, Atlanta or Washington (where most press big wigs live and work) so that means usually they have to fly to somewhere out in Middle America (imagine having to go to Denver or Tampa for one of these things, these people are supposed to be writing about THE FATE OF THE NATION, and these are places ESPN henchmen get sent to cover a football game!) Then they have to stay in regular hotels with no swanky restaurants, I’m sure David Brooks is quite annoyed right now, no decent room service! In addition, most press big shots are out of their traditional information networks at these things. They are no longer discussing the Great Game of Washington with their lunch buddies from the Cato Institute or various Titans of K Street, no now they have to talk to some delegate (gah, that’s just one step above a regular voter! How am I supposed to get my WaPo column and live the high life when I’m in a swamp talking to Ron Paul people wearing stupid hats!) And to add injury to these insults the political press is no longer in control of the actual coverage. In almost every other political event what gets reported is filtered through the writing of reporters of columnists where only a tiny bit of the actual coverage is what some politician actually said. TV is usually worse with talking headed pundits who don’t even show us what America’s political leaders said, they explain what it all means, and then argue for three minutes about who is “winning.” But during conventions the reporter is made largely irrelevant as our political leaders communicate directly with the American people without the traditional middle man. It is all very frustrating. And if there’s one thing a frustrated reporter knows, it’s how to complain. Hence the complaints.