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Old convention traditions are coming back, but they don't work anymore

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 20:  Attendees stand as they listens to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivering a speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 20: Attendees stand as they listens to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivering a speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — One of the things we're learning this week at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland is that things that occurred at conventions many decades ago are much more damaging now.

Before 1972 (when the McGovern-Frasier reforms shifted nominee selection away from the conventions to primaries and caucuses), losing candidates often spoke during the convention (usually before the roll call), and supporters of other candidates often did not cheer and even sometimes booed them. In a fairly extreme example, Nelson Rockefeller was strongly booed by Goldwater supporters when he spoke at the 1964 Republican convention.

There is also precedent after 1972 for the losing candidate (after knowing he or she has lost) to decline to explicitly endorse the nominee. Losing candidates Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Ted Kennedy in 1980 gave major speeches at their conventions without clearly endorsing their nominee. So, when Ted Cruz gave a primetime speech on Wednesday in which he didn't endorse nominee Donald Trump and was booed loudly by Trump supporters, it was not unprecedented.

Another throwback to earlier eras of political conventions was the Ohio delegation. Gov. John Kasich won the winner-take-all primary in his home state. What is unusual is that the Ohio delegation is still very committed to Kasich and much less enthusiastic about other candidates, including Trump. Beyond casting all their votes for Trump in the roll call, the whole convention they have cheered loudly whenever Kasich's name has been mentioned.

This sort of thing used to be common. Before 1972, state delegations would often start the convention supporting "favorite sons," i.e., politicians from their state whom they cheered for and voted for at least on the first ballot. The Ohio delegation is essentially reviving this long-dormant practice.

And yet, while fascinating for those of us who love convention history, these practices are a poor fit for the modern political era. Instead of normal practice, they are a symptom of the nominee's weakness.

For many years, presumptive nominees have made clear in advance that only rivals endorsing the nominee will be allowed to give speeches at the convention. For instance, when Jerry Brown refused to endorse Bill Clinton in 1992, he was denied a primetime speech, and spoke to the delegates only briefly when he seconded his own nomination before the roll call. His delegates held signs reading, "Let Jerry Speak," but to no avail.

The reason this isn't allowed to happen is because a dissenting speech will dominate the news, crowding out the nominee's message, as Cruz's speech has this time.

A state cheering on a favorite son used to be partially a way to raise that politician's profile but was mainly used as a negotiating tactic. The state would be signaling that it was not committed to any of the major candidates, and state party leaders were willing to make a deal with one of those candidates to win their support.

But Ohio has no chance of making a deal this year, because Trump came into the convention with enough votes to win. This time, Ohio is mainly protesting a nominee it doesn't like. The only effect of this protest is to weaken Trump as the nominee.

It has been exciting to see these phenomena reappear after so many years. But their reappearance doesn't portend their return as common practices. Rather, they are symptoms of an unusually disorganized campaign and an unusually divided convention.