Why Conventions Matter and What to Expect

Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena prepped for RNC. Photo: Brett Myers/Youth Radio
Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena prepped for RNC. Photo: Brett Myers/Youth Radio

Youth Radio reporter Soraya Shockley spoke to Duke University political science professor John Aldrich for a briefing on what will happen at this year’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions and some historical context about the role of conventions in electoral politics. Below are excerpts from that conversation, starting with whether we’re likely to see a change in the sway that superdelegates have over the nomination process.

John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke University
John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke University

John Aldrich: What we will probably see is the Sanders supporters pushing very hard to reduce the number of superdelegates, so they play a smaller role. My guess is they probably won’t actually eliminate them, but they likely, I think, will reduce the number so they don’t have quite as heavy a proportion as they do this time.

S.S.: Will this change happen at the convention?

JA:  It’s possible it will happen at the convention. If I were a Sanders delegate and cared enough about this, I would try to make sure it happened at the convention. If I were Sanders, I might hold on to that as a tangible– of what the consequences were of his candidacy.

SS:  How important is the platform in the general election?

JA:  A platform is a document that signals to the public what the party stands for. It doesn’t necessarily bind anyone at all, including the presidential nominee.

SS:  How much of the platform is actually decided at a convention, and how much is just political theater?

JA:  This is something that has transformed dramatically.  It used to be that this was where the decisions were actually made. Now it’s relatively rare that the convention has any true autonomous decision-making that hasn’t been established in advance.  Parties try to make it a sign of unity, and [to] be able to make a positive case for why our nominee should be elected, particularly for the presidency, but also throughout the whole ballot.

SS:  How big are the concerns for the organizers about not having a repeat of the 1968 convention in Chicago?

JA:  That was a police riot, where the police actually went in and attacked students. That’s unlikely to happen in Cleveland, I think. It could even pretty easily backfire on the protesters. They could be made to look bad and help the Republican Party look good. If anything could happen on the Democratic side, my suspicion is there will be signs and protests and a little bit of yelling and screaming, but there probably won’t be a lot of violence.

SS: Do you expect to see unrest inside the convention?

JA: I think in the Democratic case, it’s really in the Clinton camp’s interest to get everything resolved before the convention itself. It’s not so obvious that the Trump campaign cares as much. They may benefit from a little bit of strife, or still stirring things up — “we’re the people who are stirring things up” — this may be one of his positive assets. Obviously you want to keep it under control so people aren’t really hurt, [and] there isn’t a backlash against his campaign. But both would like to be able to have as much control over the look of their convention as they possibly can, which requires advanced agreement on all sides, if it’s possible to reach it.

SS:  There’s been a lot of talk about delegates trying to change the voting rules, and trying to unbind their vote for the first ballot. How likely is that?

JA:  It’s likely that Trump has now the majority of actual delegate supporters, so it would be a minority effort. It might look bad if there was even an extended discussion and vote on this. But I suspect he’s going to win. It is within the convention’s prerogative to try to change the rules. It may be those that run against state law. And then who knows what would happen to the delegates if they chose to vote against their state law for somebody other than Trump, if they were selected to vote for Trump. But it could happen, and maybe they would have a misdemeanor against them. Who knows?

SS:  What are delegates actually doing daily at the convention?

JA:  Much of the time, for many delegates, it’s a reward for a lifelong service to the party in your local area. So it’s an opportunity to go to as many events, parties, cocktail parties, that sort of thing, as possible — to interact with your peers from around the country. When in session, the delegates are supposed to be on the floor, and most of them are. Whenever they can, they will be much more into the partying and enjoyment of the convention. While the delegates meet on the floor [in the afternoons], they may be paying zero attention to what’s going on on the podium. 

SS:  What do the political parties hope to get from hosting the conventions in swing states?

JA:  One thing is they hope to have a lot of good press about how important the convention has been for the city, how much it’s helped — look how much money it’s brought in, how much popularity it’s brought to our city, people will want to come visit our city, tourism, trade will be up. That’s the core thing that happens there — it tends to be localized, particularly now that the conventions are slightly farther removed from the general election than usual. They’re usually in August, and this time they’re in July. There’ll be more time for that enthusiasm to erode and wind down, assuming they’re able to get it. Obviously if, instead, you have pictures of rioting and damaging and stores being looted and that sort of thing, that’s not going to be real helpful to the party and the state. But on a normal, well-run convention from the party’s point of view, it really boosts enthusiasm for the event.

SS: Is there evidence that that enthusiasm can be converted into actual votes?

JA:  There is not very good evidence of that. On the other hand, it’s worth a shot! It’s simply, “It might help, let’s do it there.”

SS: What will be the most interesting aspect of the upcoming conventions for us to look out for?

There are going to be some unpredictable things. This is the fall campaign getting started. For Hillary Clinton, it will be interesting to see how she positions herself with respect to her party and the general electorate. For Donald Trump, we have much more to learn about him: how he’s gonna present himself to the general electorate, how he’s going to make this transition from the outsider of the Republican Party to the center of the Republican Party, trying to become the center of attention in the electorate as a whole. So those are going to be really exciting. 

SS:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JA:  Campaign finance used to be, [..] candidates and parties would get, essentially, full funding for the general election from the government and didn’t need to worry about collecting funds. That has changed utterly since then. Since ‘08 in fact, candidates don’t even take federal funding anymore, but raise it on their own. So this is the time to see how it is, particularly, that Trump is going to deal with, now going from a time when he relied on media to run his campaign for him — that is, to provide a platform — [..] to see if he’s going to develop a large fundraising effort to invest in turn-out campaigns, and Get Out The Vote campaigns, and that sort of thing.

SS:  What do you think about the move towards a more scripted convention, versus one where candidates are chosen on the floor, and and real things are debated?

JA:  I may be one of the few, but I like the fact that the general public has a big say in who the nominees are. That the discussion of issues and platforms has now moved to offstage and only revealed onstage at the last minute is unfortunate, because since we know who the nominees are going into virtually every convention we’ve had in recent years, it would be really nice if this was a time in which there was an actual presentation of alternative Democratic or Republican views on various issues. So we got something good and lost something in the modern kind of convention.


SS:  Why should young people care about the conventions? And how would they affect conventions?

JA:  This is another time in which there is a lot of space for youth to have a voice in affecting the direction of the two parties on policy. In this case, it would be the Sanders delegates, the representatives on the platform, the ability to be able to go to the convention and outside the convention be lobbying for policy X or Y, with signs and demonstrations and that sort of thing is available, and more likely to be effective now than in most other times. Sanders is particularly a generational candidate, in many respects a little like Gene McCarthy was in 1968: bringing to focus youth-oriented policy concerns. And it’s now up to the youth to continue that.

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