Americans who came of political age after 1972 probably wouldn't recognize the presidential election system that was in place that year. The parties' national political conventions today bear only superficial resemblance to conventions of the 1960s and 1970s. The most significant difference is that the outcome of today's conventions is determined months in advance, and the party convention functions more as a commercial event for the party than as a forum for discussing issues or debating the party platform.
The changes that led to the present system were largely undertaken to make the process more democratic and to dilute the power of state party bosses. In the early 20th century, convention delegates were usually chosen by the most powerful figures in state party organizations, and presidential candidates were sometimes chosen in late-night sessions, after intense backroom lobbying by party officials. At the 1952 Democratic convention, it took three ballots and six days for Adlai Stevenson to secure the party's nomination, after a secret deal with his political opponents. But the contentious conventions also enabled the delegates to directly influence party politics: in the 1948 convention, the Democratic party added a civil rights plank to its platform, despite the objections of old-guard Democrats from the south.
At the same time, reform movements within state party organizations attempted to wrest control of the nomination process from party bosses. A handful of state parties began holding presidential primaries or caucuses, allowing party members to choose their own delegates to the conventions. At the 1968 Democratic convention the conflict between the primary-selected delegates and party bosses' selections came to a head when the convention leaders had Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley removed from the premises because he tried to install a group of handpicked delegates, and many party activists and supporters of Eugene McCarthy were infuriated when vice president Hubert Humphrey, a supporter of the Vietnam War, won the nomination despite not winning a single primary. The poisonous atmosphere in the convention hall was worsened by the violence in the streets of Chicago.
To prevent a recurrence of the 1968 debacle, the Democratic Party appointed Senator George McGovern to head a reform commission. The commission's chief suggestion was to increase the role of direct state primaries in determining the states' convention delegations, and they also encouraged the party to ensure substantial representation of women and minority groups among the delegates. Adopting the commission's recommendations, the 1972 convention featured delegates chosen by primaries in 23 states (an increase from only a dozen a decade earlier), and quotas intended to ensure proportional representation of women and minorities. Importantly, state delegates were not awarded in a winner-take-all format, but were distributed proportionally among all candidates. Going into the 1972 convention, candidates like Shirley Chisholm intended to use their small number of delegates to earn concessions from the party, such as progressive planks in the platform.
In subsequent years, increasing numbers of states initiated direct primary elections, and the party instituted rules requiring delegates to vote for the candidate to whom they were pledged by primary voters. The Democratic Party also altered the quota system, eliminating the delegate slots reserved for women and minorities while affirming the party's commitment to representing everyone. Simultaneously, state parties realized that they could increase the significance of their primaries by holding them earlier. In 1988 fifteen southern and southwestern states held their primaries on the same day. Called "Super Tuesday," the new system awarded thousands of delegates on a single day and significantly altered the calculus of presidential primaries. Rather than intense on-the-ground campaigning from state to state, candidates had to focus on large-scale fundraising and television advertising, which allowed them to blanket several states at once.
The old style of party convention, with all its imperfections and uncertainty, is effectively dead: the candidate is determined months in advance, often after only twenty or thirty primaries. This change has transformed the purpose of conventions once again, and the parties now focus on using the conventions to present a unified face, and to sketch a character portrait of the chosen candidate. Whether because of these changes or other reasons, popular interest in the conventions has waned, with television audiences decreasing steadily since the 1980s.
In 2004, the three major television networks provided only three hours of coverage to the two major party conventions, citing low ratings for past conventions. Intense interest in the 2004 elections, however, led many viewers to turn to public broadcasting and cable news networks to watch convention coverage. PBS, which carried several hours of convention coverage each night, reported a 20 percent increase in its weekly audience. Overall, however, the audience for the conventions continued to decline, although it is unclear to what extent the limited coverage affected the size of the audience.
The scant attention paid by broadcast media and widespread public apathy about the conventions led some critics to argue that primary and convention procedures should be altered once again, to reinvigorate the process and make voters, especially those in states that hold their primaries later in the season, feel more directly involved in the process.
Daniel McDermon is a writer living in New York City.
» John F. Kennedy School of Goverment: Election Interest Is Up Sharply But Convention Interest Is Not
» LA Times: The Democratic Convention: TV Ratings Dip Sharply From 2000 (Registration required)
» NPR: 1968: Antiwar Riots Engulf Democrats
» PBS - Online NewsHour: Overview of the Primary Process
» Poynter Online: Republican & Democratic Convention History (1856-2004)
» The Reader's Companion to American History: Party Conventions
» U.S. Department of State: The Primary and Caucus System in U.S. Elections
» Wikipedia: U.S. presidential nominating convention