40 Years Since the Last Meaningful Convention

This week, political junkies and activists will obsess over every detail of the Democratic National Convention. Next week, they’ll do the same about the Republican gathering. They’ll rate the speeches, watch for mistakes by the other team, and try to gauge the impact on the fall campaign. It’s likely that some campaign commercials will be cut from the gatherings and some new “rising stars” will be “discovered.”

But, barring any major gaffes, the events will have no impact on the election. That’s because most voters are not interested and will not be tuning in. Many may be only vaguely aware that the events are even taking place.

It used to be different. In the 1960s and ‘70s, there were only three television networks and they all covered the conventions as a big deal. Anybody turning on the TV would have noticed. In today’s world, consumers have a virtually unlimited supply of more appealing options on their screens and phones.

There’s more to the story, though, than that people have more options to watch. Conventions used to matter, they used to actually select presidential nominees. But that’s not the case anymore. It hasn’t been for a long, long time.

The last meaningful convention moment was 40 years ago. In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy was challenging incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. Carter had won enough delegates to secure the nomination, but Kennedy was convinced that—in their hearts–most delegates preferred him. So, his team challenged the convention rules and called for a vote that would free all the delegates to vote their conscience.

Eventually, Carter’s team carried the day and the president was formally nominated. He went on to lose the general election to Ronald Reagan.

That 1980 convention capped a decade of change in the way we nominate our presidents, a change that made the conventions functionally irrelevant. We didn’t know it at the time, but the new nomination process would make conventions irrelevant.

From early in the 19th century until 1968, few delegates were selected in primaries and pledged to a specific candidate. Party officials typically served as delegates and openly haggled about the nominee. In 1968, only 13 states held primaries to select delegates.

Eugene McCarthy, running on an anti-War platform won most of the early primaries. Bobby Kennedy entered the race late and became a leading contender. However, he was assassinated just hours after winning the California primary.

Eventually, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination even though he had not entered a single primary. Everything about the convention that year was a disaster for the party. Several states sent competing slates of delegates. There were fights about the Vietnam War and Civil Rights issues. There were also riots in the streets playing out on television sets all across America.

After Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, the Democrats decided to change their nominating process. George McGovern was put in charge of a commission to recommend new rules. And, perhaps not coincidentally, he became the Democratic nominee four years later.

One unintended result of the reform was that primaries quickly became the norm with potential delegates pledged to a particular candidate. Nobody understood it at the time, but with primary voters selecting the nominee directly, there would no longer be a need for nominating conventions. For a while, they served as televised pageants (funded by the taxpayers). But even that role has faded into history.

This year, the conventions will simply be virtual events. Maybe they will bring about another change. It might be too much to hope for, but maybe the pandemic could finally bring an end to this archaic charade.

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