The 2016 Republican National Convention is less than a week away, and the party still has not released a schedule of speakers, or events, or anything else that would make it feasible for news editors to plan coverage. The sense of chaos is annoying to news professionals, but it means conventions will have something this year that they genuinely have not had for decades — a real air of mystery and allure to what might actually happen at Trump’s convention.
For the first time in my career, I’m genuinely curious about what’s going to happen. Conventions, after all, have been boring and predictable pseudo-events for so long now that the (accurate, as it happens) viewpoint that they’re actually pretty important has come to seem snappy and contrarian. The basic problem is that even though they matter, they matter purely as media spectacles but are stuck with the stagecraft of the conference of politicians that they pretend to be.
The result is that despite the long and distinguished history of political conventions, they have evolved over the past 180 years into dull, news-free television. But Donald Trump, whatever else you may say about him, is rarely boring. He really could make political party conventions great again.
Political conventions are postmodern news events
The national political conventions are, officially speaking, big meetings whose purpose is to officially select a presidential and vice presidential nominee and to write a policy platform on which they will run.
In practice, however, it’s been decades since meaningful deliberative work was actually transacted at a national convention. The identities of the presidential nominees are decided well in advance by the delegates selected as the result of state primaries and caucuses, and the presidential candidates select their running mates via an extensive but secretive vetting process and then unveil them shortly before the convention.
What little suspense remains relates to votes around the text of the party platforms, but even here the vast majority of the work is done in advance by various select committees.
The selection of presidential and vice presidential nominees is, in a sense, not much more than a pretext. What you have instead is a truly postmodern event.
In Don DeLillo’s White Noise tourists flock to visit the most photographed barn in America hoping to take a picture and add to its fame. In much the same way, the press flocks to the convention site to cover the speeches because it’s an important political event, and major political figures take the stage and deliver speeches because it’s a reliable way to get extensive coverage for their speeches.
Political science confirms that, indeed, the conventions are genuinely consequential despite the clear lack of stakes.
Many voters pay at least some attention to them, and the parade of party luminaries paying homage to the nominee constitutes one of the earliest and strongest partisan signals of the entire campaign season. Conventions don’t sway swing voters, but they do get marginally attached partisans back playing for the correct team and bring the basic contours of the campaign into focus. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have had some not unusual difficulty throughout June and July in getting the wholehearted support of many rank-and-file members of their party behind them.
But the conventions are, for both campaigns, one of the best opportunities to get that work done. A disunited party before the convention is banal. A lack of unity post-convention is a disaster.
Conventions are the legacy of a panic about Freemasons
The more interesting historical question isn’t whether conventions today make any real news — as they clearly don’t — but rather why conventions even mattered in the first place and how they came about.
Before the early 19th century, party nominees were picked by meetings of the parties’ congressional caucuses.
Enter the short-lived and otherwise obscure Anti-Masonic Party, which was an essentially single-issue movement dedicated to fighting the influence of the then-influential Freemasons secret society. Because Andrew Jackson was a Mason, the party was a de facto anti-Jackson party and the movement was eventually absorbed into the Whig Party, which had been formed to oppose Jackson and his policies. Because Anti-Masons were a brand new outsider party, they didn’t have an established congressional caucus to do the choosing.
But while it rode high, the Anti-Masonic Party came up with the idea of holding a national convention in Baltimore in 1831 to select a presidential nominee. The idea quickly spread, however, to the Democratic and Whig parties as well — nobody likes Congress, and state-based political organizations recognized that they could cut out the middleman by staging conventions at which representatives of the various state parties would meet to decide on nominees. Thus, the national political convention is the greatest historical legacy of the Anti-Masons.
And for 100 years or so, the conventions were the real deal. Candidates would try to lay the groundwork for their nomination before the convention, of course, but the outcome would be genuinely unsettled until the delegates had a chance to meet. A relative unknown like former Illinois Congress member Abraham Lincoln could emerge from the back and forth, and convention balloting could become truly epoch — reaching its peak at the 1924 Democratic Convention, which required more than 100 rounds of voting.
By the middle of the 20th century, modern communication technology and the growing influence of primary elections over the delegates meant less was decided in practice at the convention. The main subject of suspense became not the presidential nomination but the vice presidential one. This was no trivial thing. Both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were picked via last-minute convention deals, and both ended up in the White House.
The death knell to conventions as deciders came when in the early 1970s both parties instituted new rules designed to make primary and caucus results more binding, more widespread, and more uniformly implemented across the country. Starting with the 1972 cycle, it was firmly true that the primaries decided the nomination and the convention merely ratified it.
Still, the conventions of the 1970s and early ’80s were at least a focal point for intraparty tensions at which fights between Ford and Reagan, Carter and Kennedy, centrists and ideologues would play out. Over the past 30 years this drama, too, has drained away.
Now you get a staged and scripted show, devised by the nominee’s campaign and implemented by the national committee with the sole mission of presenting an image of the party and the candidate.
Conventions are genuinely important
Modern conventions do not, in a literal sense, do anything that matters. If you followed the 2012 GOP primary race through to the point at which Mitt Romney became the last man standing, and then entirely tuned out politics out for a couple of months, you wouldn’t have missed any significant news.
But in practice the conventions do matter, because very few people behave this way. The conventions used to be crucially significant news events, so the news media covers them extensively. A couple of hours’ worth of primetime speeches are on network television, and several hours more are shown on cable news channels.
Because the convention will be televised, lots of important politicians from around the country want to come speak at it. Because lots of important politicians will be there, lots of lobbyists and interest group leaders are there to stage events too. That further increases the convention’s appeal to the media, which find it to be a target-rich environment for interviews, and the extensive national media attention gives further incentives to political influencers, stars, and wannabes to show up.
The extensive media attention itself makes the conventions significant campaign events. In their book The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do (and Do Not) Matter, Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson show that polling leads are considerably more predictive after conventions than before. Usually the party that holds its convention first gets a "bounce," and then the party that goes second gets its own "bounce." The net effect of those two convention bounces is a significant political event that meaningfully drives the outcome in November.
One key reason for the bounce is that conventions help unify parties. Democrats who, for whatever reason, may not love Hillary Clinton will see testimonies to her greatness from Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Bill Clinton — reminders of what they all have in common as Democrats and why Clinton is the natural choice for people like them.
But even here, conventions are in decline. Costas Panagopoulos has documented a "sizable decline in the proportion of voters that reaches a decision about their presidential vote during the conventions from about one-quarter of voters in the 1960s to about one-tenth in recent election cycles."
Conventions are pretty boring
Usually a modern convention consists, essentially, of a big parade of speeches by politicians. For a while these speeches were expressions of factional sentiment, where leaders of influential groups within the party would make the case for their side’s vision of where the party should go. But a bunch of people arguing with each other is a bad message to send, so in the modern day the scripts are locked down. If you want to speak, you stick to the narrative.
This is a relatively new development. When then-governor of Pennsylvania Bob Casey (the father of current Sen. Bob Casey) was told he couldn’t give an anti-abortion stemwinder at the 1992 convention — it was either leave abortion out of the speech or don’t speak at all — it was regarded as a mildly scandalous, vaguely Stalinist exercise in message discipline. But it immediately became the new norm. The convention is a place to put forward a unified face, not to air dirty laundry.
Because only some of the speeches air on the broadcast networks in primetime, the name of the game is to pack your best, most interesting speakers into the most viewed window of time.
Democrats this year will of course want to feature speeches by Clinton and her running mate, as well as her husband, who happens to be an ex-president, plus the incumbent president and the vice president. If Bernie Sanders wants to give a generous, on-message speech about Clinton, then Clinton would surely like to give him that opportunity. Ambitious elected officials from blue states will try to get on the roster at the best possible time slots, while Clinton will need to ensure a schedule that also reflects the party’s diversity.
The prime slots will mostly go to the already famous, but there’s one exception. Traditionally one younger politician is given the chance to deliver a "keynote address" that marks him (or perhaps this year, her) as a rising star in the party. Barack Obama’s electrifying keynote in 2004 ensured that he would be a political star from the moment he was sworn in to the Senate in 2005, thus laying the crucial groundwork for his incredibly rapid ascent to power.
No other keynoter has leveraged the job quite so effectively, but Ann Richards’s 1988 keynote made her a significant national figure during her time in Texas politics, and then-Mayor Julián Castro’s selection as a 2012 keynoter similarly signaled that he punches above the object stature of his office in national politics.
All that said, the upshot of turning conventions into a week-long display of party unity is that they are pretty boring. Any one speech can be quite interesting on its own terms. But the vast majority of them simply blend together, recitations of the same key beats over and over and over again in slightly different tones of voice.
Donald Trump could make conventions great again
This is what makes the idea of a Donald Trump convention so exciting.
For one thing, many of the key party luminaries whom you’d normally expect to be featured speakers aren’t supporting him. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush won’t be speaking. Neither Ted Cruz nor John Kasich has endorsed Trump yet, so we won’t have that party unity display either. A huge raft of GOP elected officials are skipping the convention, and it’s not entirely obvious that a young up-and-coming Republican politician really wants to keynote this event.
At the same time, while Trump has no real knowledge of or interest in American public policy, he does have extensive experience in the field of reality television.
Normally parties nominate a presidential candidate with the opposite portfolio of skills (Ronald Reagan had demonstrated proficiency in both policy and Hollywood), which is probably wise from a governing standpoint but has led us to a dreary dead end in terms of conventions. By the same token, while Trump would likely be a disastrous president he could be an excellent convention organizer.
Since modern conventions are essentially just long television shows with no real political content, it seems natural that politicians would stage boring ones while the star of NBC’s The Apprentice could stage an amazing one.
What does that mean in practice? I can hardly even begin to guess. But from a sheer entertainment perspective, the normal long procession of politicians delivering very similar talking points seems clearly suboptimal.
Trump has talked about giving airtime instead to sports stars like Mike Tyson, and he proved with the Celebrity Apprentice spinoff that there’s plenty of gold to be mined from a motley crew of B-list celebrities. The convention ritual itself has been with us for a very long time now, but it’s a creature whose nature and purpose has always changed with the times.
The current iteration of conventions as we know them is fundamentally a generation-old product of the Reagan years that, like the conservative orthodoxy Trump has shaken up with his embrace of trade protectionism, could use a rethink. This year, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a chance to see something yuge and very classy.