Thursday, July 7, 2016

Here come the conventions -- again -- July 7, 2016 column


In a year of voter anger and disgust, we’re about to see the coronations of two presidential candidates most Americans don’t like in a spectacle of speeches paid for by fat cats and lobbyists.

National political conventions we will have – Republicans July 18 to 21 in Cleveland and Democrats July 25 to 28 in Philadelphia – but why?

Because that’s the way we’ve always done it, since the 1830s anyway. Conventions are a relic of the 19th century, like getting ice from a horse-drawn wagon.

Not even shiny new convention apps or 360-degree cameras can save the conventions from their retro feel. Their original purpose was to select each party’s presidential nominee and platform, but they’ve evolved into four days of infomercials.

A few months ago, there was talk of a brokered or contested convention, which would make the occasion both newsworthy and significant. Then Donald Trump shocked the world by nailing the GOP nomination before Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic one. Anti-Trump forces still hope to derail his train by changing convention rules, but don’t count on it.

And most people – especially the nominees -- don’t care about party platforms. Sorry, Bernie.

The vice presidential candidates likely will be announced before the conventions, so there goes another shred of news. You could go on vacation off the grid for a couple of weeks and miss nothing, politically.

To be fair, some political scientists argue that having national political conventions every four years is good for our democracy. Conventions give the parties the opportunity, unfiltered by the news media, to reintroduce themselves and their values to voters, they say.

But convention viewership on television has been sliding since 1960. An exception came in 2008 when nearly two-thirds of all U.S. households – a record -- watched at least one convention, an analysis by the Nielsen TV ratings firm found. The numbers dropped in 2012. 

Drawing the most convention viewers does not translate into more votes for the party in November, however. Studies show most voters watch only the convention of the party they already favor.

“It’s safe to say that ratings have little to no electoral meaning,” University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball blog said in an analysis of the numbers.

This summer’s conventions may draw the curious. What will Trump’s family say? What will Bernie Sanders’ supporters do? And if, heaven forbid, the protests outside turn violent, people will watch.

Trump’s wife Melania, daughter Ivanka and sons Eric and Donald Junior will speak in prime time, along with famous sports and entertainment figures. No one ever knows what Trump himself will say.

President Obama previewed his role at the Democratic convention Tuesday in his first joint appearance with Clinton. He still has the power to energize the Democratic faithful in ways Hillary Clinton can only dream of.

Speaking at a national convention can be a career boost, as Obama demonstrated in 2004, so expect a parade of Democrats hoping to make a connection.

Many Republicans, though, are avoiding Trump’s party. Among those staying home: both Presidents Bush, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and 2008 nominee John McCain. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will not attend, nor will boxer Mike Tyson. Trump tweeted that Tyson wasn’t asked to speak.

Beginning in 1976, taxpayers paid for the national political conventions. The post-Watergate idea was to avoid corruption by using public funds from the tax return checkoff for presidential campaigns. In 2012, the Democratic and Republican parties each received about $18.2 million for their conventions. Not this year.

Congress turned off the spigot in 2014 – except for $100 million in security grants to law enforcement agencies in the two host cities. The security money has been allocated separately since 9/11.

So, this year, lobbyists, labor unions and corporations that have supported conventions in the past are bearing more costs and having even more influence. This is progress?
Anachronistic though they are, conventions live on. So, enjoy the spectacle of balloons and funny hats, but don’t take the speeches too seriously.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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