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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In Defense of the Conventions

Barack Obama first rose to stardom as the 2004 DNC keynoter.
On Monday, MSNBC's Chris Hayes described the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions as "infomercials" for the parties. To some extent, this characterization is apt, as reflected in the feel-good videos Rachel Maddow highlighted from previous conventions. But the conventions are still important even though they no longer play as pivotal of a role as they once did in our presidential elections. In recent years, the conventions have proven highly effectual, unusually revealing, and surprisingly insightful.

The conventions can sometimes be flawed spectacles that are so highly scripted that they are inauthentic in the presentations of the candidates. However, they are generally a vital element of our presidential election campaigns because of how unique they are.

For one, the conventions are actually politically important in determining the trajectory and ultimate outcome of a presidential race. For that reason alone arguably, they are worth at least paying attention to because they could truly decide the fate of the country. That's because, if done right, conventions are pivotal to uniting party loyalists, including partisans across the country. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck documented in The Gamble, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, widely praised by for how well it was orchestrated, was pivotal in rallying Democratic voters around President Obama. 

Indeed, Obama, still the most popular president among Democrats in history, won that year the highest percentage of Democratic votes of any nominee ever. Bill Clinton's famously articulate nominating speech, Elizabeth Warren's debut on the national political stage, and the enormously popular Michelle Obama's moving address all helped make that possible. A similar effect helped Al Gore in 2000 narrow a 15-point gap (from the summer of 1999) that dissipated after the DNC to produce a tight race that led to a narrow popular vote win. George W. Bush benefited tremendously from the 2004 Republican National Convention too thanks to a combination of the patriotic backdrop of New York City in the first presidential race after 9/11 and well-organized critiques of John Kerry

On the other hand, conventions could be disastrous, even if inadvertently so, for a party's chances. Mitt Romney famously forgot to mention Afghanistan, John Kerry's "reporting for duty" line was devastatingly used against him, Ted Kennedy's awkward handshake with Jimmy Carter portended party disunity, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention was genuinely a chaotic mess marred by violence. To varying degrees, these events were pivotal because they actually helped shape the election and, in turn, the fate of the nation -- and, contrary to popular belief, the conventions are (as such) historically more important in determining election outcomes than the debates are. 

More importantly, the conventions are actually one of the most substantive events of the cycle. Actually, they can be more substantive than even the debates because, unlike the debates, conventions actually allow for lengthy, detailed and comprehensive speeches that can dive into deep policy discussion. There is no better recent example of this than Bill Clinton's 2012 speech for Barack Obama; he even explained the GOP proposal to block-grant Medicaid

Obama's own 2008 convention acceptance speech proved to be a vital preview of his actual policies. With tens of millions of Americans watching, these speeches can grab viewers' attention in a way debates disallow; there aren't merely quick snippets and mere soundbites, or policy agendas jammed into fast responses, but instead real agenda-setting speeches.

As such, conventions can be objectively good in holding candidates accountable to the words they utter in those important speeches. For example, it was in the 1988 Republican National Convention that George H.W. Bush memorialized his "read my lips" pledge. When he violated this pledge, the videotape from the RNC was a staple of the 1992 Clinton campaign's advertisements attacking Bush. In his 1979 "crisis of confidence" speech, Jimmy Carter cited the promises from his 1976 DNC nomination acceptance speech to make the case regarding his leadership. 

Such speeches are also vital in framing the agenda of a party for the future and, as such, inspiring activists and party leaders to aspire to the words of those addresses in crafting proposals and actual policy. Conservatives today are still motivated by the words of Ronald Reagan's 1980 RNC acceptance speech and liberals are still moved by Mario Cuomo's 1984 DNC speech. Words matter. 

In that way, conventions are revealing but they are also revealing in another important aspect: introducing us to up and coming political stars like Ronald Reagan in 1976, Barack Obama in 2004, and Julian Castro in 2012. Their premieres on the national political stage in the conventions propelled their careers and, naturally, raised public awareness regarding their backgrounds, views, and agendas. 

Ultimately, all of these positive elements of the conventions prove that they are still useful civic events that are, at times, truly informative or at least politically noteworthy. It is a good bet that this year's conventions will prove to be at least the latter...yes, even, the Trump Show of Cleveland in ways we don't fully know yet. Tune in! 

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