National Politics

Beyond the mere spectacle, conventions really do matter

What's actually going to happen at the Republican National Convention?

More than 2,000 delegates from 50 states and multiple U.S. territories, as well as media, politicians, lobbyists, pundits, and generally curious onlookers descend on Cleveland this week for the Republican National Convention. Aside from confirming
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More than 2,000 delegates from 50 states and multiple U.S. territories, as well as media, politicians, lobbyists, pundits, and generally curious onlookers descend on Cleveland this week for the Republican National Convention. Aside from confirming

This week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland promises to be unlike any in recent memory. The nominee, Donald Trump, has promised as much. And for many, including television producers concerned about viewership, a less scripted, more dramatic convention might be a welcome change.

Conventions — I’ve been to five so far — are pretty formulaic: a keynote address by an up-and-coming political figure; speeches by past presidents, sitting governors and U.S. senators; and the requisite acceptance speeches by the presidential and vice presidential nominees. The rest of the prime-time lineup is usually devoted to spouses, personal testimonials and, for the past 20 years or so, a carefully produced biographical video.

Sure, there have been some surprises here and there — Clint Eastwood’s memorable appearance in Tampa in 2012 or unexpected performances by musicians — but those are the exceptions. For the most part, conventions are scripted down to the minute to enhance the party nominee’s standing with the electorate and maximize the “bounce” he or she will receive in the polls.

A brief look back at the 2016 presidential campaigns leading up to this year’s party conventions.

While this election year has been like no other, and the convention seems far more unpredictable, the outcome of the convention is not in doubt. Despite the spirited efforts of some remaining holdouts, Donald Trump will be nominated and the so-called “rebellion” will not take root.

But I’m not going to the convention in Cleveland in hopes of seeing an “open convention” and a nomination fight unprecedented in modern times. And I’m not going because I’m enticed by Trump’s promise to bring “showbiz” to Quicken Loans Arena. As a political scientist, I’ve been attending conventions of both parties for far more simple reasons: Conventions are fascinating, and they actually matter.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Washington, D.C., and have lived in several state capitals. But nothing quite compares to the bubble that surrounds presidential election politics. Just the sheer amount of media attending the event creates the perception that no other news could possibly be happening anywhere else in the world. If Joe Scarborough, Megyn Kelly, Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews are all in the same place at the same time, presumably that place must be the center of the universe.

Obviously, this perception is patently false, but when every minute of the day is devoted to nonstop conversations about poll numbers, speculation about the fortunes of varied political figures and rumors of guest appearances, it is remarkably easy to get swept into this alternative and disconnected reality.

INSIDE THE BUBBLE

And it is easy to see how quickly media firestorms happen inside the bubble. During the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, I was standing a few feet from the Los Angeles Fox affiliate when it erroneously reported that John McCain had chosen Tim Pawlenty, then governor of Minnesota, to be his running mate. Within minutes, other stations had picked up this unsourced “breaking news.” With thousands of journalists packed shoulder to shoulder desperate to fill time in the perpetual news cycle, some stories receive wildly disproportionate attention and take on a life of their own. And sometimes those stories turn out to be inaccurate.

It’s also apparent that these public spectacles contribute to the continued polarization of our politics and public discourse. Our conventions are essentially pep rallies before a rivalry game. There isn’t a lot of attention to nuance or much appreciation for compromise.

What gets picked up in the broadcast media are typically the most bombastic and provocative statements, which are roundly applauded within the hall. Conventions provide ideal conditions for a highly partisan echo effect. I’ve overheard delegates seriously suggest that the other party might cancel its convention because that party couldn’t possibly respond to the onslaught coming from inside the convention hall.

Sure, not every speech is greeted with thunderous applause. But essentially every argument is reinforced within the arena and later by the partisan media.

At the Democratic conventions in 2008 and 2012, it seemed every TV was tuned to MSNBC (which not surprisingly dutifully reported that things were going swimmingly). At the Republican conventions those years, Fox News provided the after-party fodder.

In short, for a political scientist, conventions provide a unique opportunity to witness the very dynamics that distort our politics.

WHAT THE CAMERAS MISS

Despite their distorting effects, these nominating conventions do matter. The regular viewing public gets only a small glimpse of what is happening within the arena and on the convention floor.

Every now and then, an obscure politician raises her or his profile with a compelling address. Then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote is regularly cited in this regard, but there are numerous examples of this. Then-obscure congressional candidates Republican Mia Love of Utah and Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii announced their bright futures at their party conventions in 2012.

But most of the time, the future of the party is less apparent in the speeches shown on television than in what the camera misses in the hall.

Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential acceptance speech was widely viewed, but the cameras couldn’t capture the effect her speech had within the convention.

During the run-up to her speech, the Alaska governor was under withering attack in the media and McCain was under fire for selecting her. With her speech, however, Palin did far more than settle the speculation that she might be dropped from the ticket. She unleashed a political movement that has helped reshape American politics.

THE ENERGY IN THE ROOM

It is impossible to adequately describe the difference in the energy in the hall between her address and that of the supposed star, Arizona Sen. McCain.

During Palin’s speech, guests in the audience were standing on their chairs and jumping up and down. The night of her speech it quickly became clear that she had tapped into something very different that, in my view, ultimately laid the seeds of the Tea Party movement. The following night, McCain spoke before a polite but unenthusiastic crowd and a half-filled convention hall.

The future of the Republican Party was apparent from the reactions of delegates and guests. McCain never excited the base and would lose the election; the Tea Party would prove to be a major force in American politics.

The Republican Party is at a similar crossroads this week in Ohio. And, frankly, the Democratic Party will be addressing its own fissure later in the month in Philadelphia.

In both parties, insurgent candidates upended the establishment and called into question the fragile coalitions holding disparate factions together.

While most of the public attention will be about the impact of the convention on November’s contest, the behind-the-scenes battles over party platform language, the changes in seemingly mundane party rules, and the reactions by delegates and partisans in the hall will tell us a lot about the future of the two parties.

Idaho was one of just six states (Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, Wisconsin being the others) in which both Trump and Hillary Clinton were overwhelmingly defeated in the state’s primary or caucus. How effectively the nominees can heal the wounds of the divisive nominating process and consolidate the party’s support will be of utmost importance in November. Should either candidate fail to win over their fellow partisans, turnout in November will suffer precipitously.

Should a large number of Republicans, for instance, decide to skip the general election, Trump would still carry Idaho. But the impact down the ballot — particularly in state legislative contests — could be significant.

More from Cleveland this week

Corey Cook, dean of Boise State’s School of Public Service, will be reporting on what he sees and hears in Cleveland this week, with a special eye on what might be of particular interest to Idaho. Cook has served as director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has taught courses in American politics specializing in political institutions, urban and state politics, and housing and development politics. Reach him at coreydcook@boisestate.edu.

Four things BSU political scientist Corey Cook is watching in Cleveland

1. Will the fractured Republican Party unify enthusiastically behind its nominee?

2. Will the selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as Donald Trump’s VP electrify the party’s evangelical voters?

3. Will Trump stay on script or stray from his convention speech?

4. Will a convention largely devoid of big political names draw TV ratings?

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