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The 2024 Republican National Convention will be in Milwaukee July 15-18, 2024.

Why have political conventions when nominees are almost always a given?

The Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee will be the epicenter for the upcoming Republican National Convention.
Emily Files
The Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee will be the epicenter for the upcoming Republican National Convention.

Political party conventions have been around in the United States since the late 19th Century. It started as a way for political leaders to gather, write a party platform, plan, coordinate — and most importantly pick a nominee for the party.

However modern primaries have made that last part pretty much unnecessary since we almost always know who the candidate will be ahead of time. So why are political conventions still important to political parties? To help answer this question, Lake Effect’s Audrey Nowakowski spoke with Kathleen Dolan, a distinguished professor of political science at UW-Milwaukee.

Historically, political conventions were for the purpose of nominating a candidate for president. But now that candidates are almost always a given, what’s the purpose of a political convention today?

Dolan says there are still several reasons why political conventions are important to political parties and their candidates, and they're things that applied historically as well. "It's not so much that the uses to which the conventions are put has evolved as much as it is that we have sort of taken out the piece of the nominating," she explains. "Political conventions are important to political parties because they are, if nothing else, massive information delivery machines."

Political conventions are important to political parties because they are, if nothing else, massive information delivery machines.

"To gather delegates from all around the country who are passionately committed to your cause and the energy that creates is something that is catnip for journalists and the general public as consumers of information," Dolan adds. "And certainly moreso, until the last couple of presidential elections, one of the reality of conventions has been that they were really sort of the only game in town for almost a week ... it's really sort of free media for four or five days."

Beyond media coverage, Dolan notes another important aspect of conventions is writing a party's platform. "It used to be much easier in the old days for political parties to have clear and consistent positions on the issues of the day and the issues on which their presidential candidate particularly would campaign. And so there is a platform writing committee that comes together and literally writes the party's positions ... and this again is about communicating to the public the ideas of the party, the ideas of the candidate. ... It is the case that in 2020 the Republican Party did not write a fresh or unique platform. One assumes they're going to do that this year, but we don't know," she adds.

What lead to the primary shift in a convention where we know the nominees?

"So the fact that the nominees for the parties is known ahead of time is a function of the shift that we have made since the 1960s to using the direct primary process to essentially elect party nominees," explains Dolan. "So in the old days, you know, when you always hear the expression, 'The boys in the smoke-filled back room.' Conventions were literally the place where the party leaders would come together and they'd sit and stroke their beards and say, 'Who should we nominate for president?' And then that convention would be the sort of like unveiling and the presenting.

The direct primary is really taking the power away from party leaders to choose nominees and it's locating it with the public.

In the 1960s we started on a broad basis, sort of little by little till we got to where we are today, using primary elections to allow voters to choose nominees for president, governor, senator house — all sorts of locally elected officials. The use of the direct primary is actually an innovation that was introduced in the system by the Progressive movement, which has roots here in Wisconsin ... So the direct primary is really taking the power away from party leaders to choose nominees and it's locating it with the public. ... That's why we know the nominee ahead of time because the primary process in the United States runs from anywhere from like January to June, depending on how the 50 states and the District of Columbia lay themselves out, and then conventions are always held in the summer," Dolan explains.

Since political parties are private organizations and not governmental units, do they use its personal funds to host conventions?

"So it is the case that in the old days, the parties would use their own sort of resources and their own people to put conventions on. Today conventions, like everything else in American politics, are massive fundraising organizations. And so the parties raise money for the purposes of putting on the conventions. Now, that is their own money because it has been donated to them for [these] purposes," notes Dolan.

Do conventions typically have the impact of swaying any undecided voters?

"It is theoretically possible that an undecided voter could happen on a convention and see or hear something that he or she likes, and be convinced. But the issue about undecided voters in American politics is an interesting one. There are relatively few of them, and the primary thing about work in politics that helps people decide for whom they're going to vote is their party identification. So individuals who identify themselves as independent or undecided are doing so in large part because they're not connected to the political parties in the same way that other citizens are.

Since they are not connected to the political parties, they are less likely to be interested in politics, they're less likely to be consuming political information. ... So conventions are in some ways, they are more mobilization of the base machines. ... But it's really hard to reach those [undecided voters] because they are self selecting out of most political information," Dolan notes.

Given our short attention spans, is it politically and publicly advantageous to keep conventions going?

"I think they still provide an important tool for the parties to bring all those people together. Because all of those delegates and all of the party leaders from the states who are going to come in - this convention is going to get them excited and motivated and jazzed up to go home to all the states and to really dig in and campaign and try to get people mobilized.

So, it's an information out to the public but it's also at some level an information in, right? I mean, they're going to try to get as many people in a room with the former president as they can, they're going to talk to the governor's candidates, the senators, the House members, all of those people. ... So they do provide that role for the parties and its followers, the elite, that kind of leaders, that is still pretty important, I think. I don't think we have a ton of information because we don't have a world in which we haven't had conventions other than the 2020 Democratic convention that we could use as comparison. But I will say that I think political people believe that that in person contact is important.

But the issue is that there'll be here in July and the election is in November, and so there's not much of a lasting impact. Former President Trump might experience a bump in the polls for a couple of days or a week after the convention, and then it'll settle back to normal and the 'convention bump' as we call it, will wear off," says Dolan.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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