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Epidemic Raises Question Of Whether We Truly Need Party Conventions Any More


What is the opposite of social distancing? Well, one answer - a national political convention, the kind where thousands of Democrats or Republicans cram into a hall to officially choose their presidential nominee.


Republicans say they will hold their convention as planned in August. Democrats have postponed their July convention until August 17, although the Democrats' leading candidate, Joe Biden, says it's hard to envision an in-person convention this year.

KELLY: So with a pandemic bearing down, is it necessary to keep holding these partisan extravaganzas at all?

Ron Elving, our senior editor and correspondent on the Washington desk and a veteran of 18 national conventions, joins me now for the long view.

Hi there, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Eighteen conventions?

ELVING: (Laughter).

KELLY: Wow (laughter). So you're well familiar with all the hoopla and people get all excited. But why have them? What is their actual role in the election process?

ELVING: The basic role is pretty simple. It's the official vote of all the delegates chosen by the states that puts the party's candidate on the ballot in 50 states. And for a long time, that vote has been taken at the conventions, all the way back to the '30s, Mary Louise. And by that, I mean the 1830s.

KELLY: Eighteen - and I suppose if we're all the way back in the 1800s, the convention was actually the place where that decision was made.

ELVING: Absolutely. And it could take days. It took weeks in one case in the 1920s for the delegates to thrash that out. It was an exhausting and a suspenseful process, and people followed it in the newspapers avidly. And then in the 1920s, they began following it on the radio. And in the 1940s, on TV. But the suspense is largely gone. Most of the delegates are chosen in primaries over the months before the convention, as we know, and most of them are pledged. So we generally know who the nominee will be.

KELLY: Yeah. When was the actual last suspenseful convention?

ELVING: The last time they really had any suspense, probably 1952. There was some question about it in some of the other conventions since - Teddy Kennedy challenging Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan challenging President Gerald Ford a few years later - or earlier, rather.

KELLY: Yeah, '76, right?

ELVING: Yeah, '76. But apart from that, it's pretty well scripted in advance, and the parties and the media know just when the show will begin and end each night.

KELLY: Yeah. And speaking of beginning and ending it, it does go on, like, night after night after night. This is not a short extravaganza.

ELVING: Not at all. The parties get a chance to showcase their nominees for the nation to see. And the conventions provide some of the most dramatic moments in our presidential history, such as when Ronald Reagan finally got the nod four years later in 1980 and gave a memorable acceptance speech.


RONALD REAGAN: I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional or economic boundaries - the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the earth who came here in search of freedom.

KELLY: So Ron, is the real point of the conventions that big speech, that big last night?

ELVING: That is really the large point from the standpoint of the candidates. But there are many other motivations at work. The party approves a manifesto, or a policy agenda that it calls a platform, for its candidates to run on. And there is a lot of nonstop fundraising going on all week and a lot of national exposure for new faces, such as when the Republicans introduced Sarah Palin to the world in 2008 or when the Democrats let a young state senator from Illinois give their keynote address in 2004.


BARACK OBAMA: Now, even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us - the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America.


OBAMA: There is not a black and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America - there's the United States of America.


KELLY: Then-Senator Obama back in 2004. But Ron - in the moments we have left, given the virus, does it actually make sense to do this this year? Should they at least think about a smaller scale, maybe doing this all by Zoom, some other way?

ELVING: Republican planners say they're not talking about alternative scenarios. The Democrats say they are considering all options, including adjusting the convention's crowd size and the schedule. And I'm sure that all of them have given some thought to possibly making the whole thing an online event. That would give a whole new meaning to talking about the party platform.

KELLY: We shall see.

NPR's Ron Elving.

ELVING: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.