Over 2,000 delegates from
the Democratic and Republican parties will be attending national party
conventions over the next few weeks. Millions of voters are expected to view the
televised events, which are meant to convey an image of party unity. Reporter William Eagle takes a look at how they
have evolved since their beginnings nearly 180 years ago.
Today, some observers see the U.S.
political party conventions as carefully choreographed exercises in
public relations. They serve mostly to formalize the selection of the
presidential nominee already chosen in party caucuses and primaries. And they
showcase support for the official candidate and the platform, or program, which
each party supports. But for many decades, the
conventions were unpredictable – and were known for compromises and last-minute
Julian Zelizer is a professor of
history and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
"They are an invention of 19th
century America," he says, "and before the 1970s, these were places where party delegates
gathered to decide on their candidates for president and vice president. The
delegates were often party bosses and operatives who decided who is a better
candidate in terms of what the Republicans and Democratic parties represent."
could be long and difficult. In 1924, deadlocked Democratic Party delegates
took more than 100 ballots before choosing a compromise candidate, John Davis,
who then lost to Republican Calvin Coolidge.
At times, even tough
bargaining could not unify a party convention. In 1860, a debate over slavery
ended with the walkout of delegates from the south. They left because the party
had adopted the position that the Supreme Court could decide whether to outlaw
the practice, taking the decision out of the hands of the individual states.
In the 1970s, both major parties enacted reforms to make the selection
of the presidential nominee more democratic. Since then, the head of the
ticket has been the candidate who has won a majority of delegates in
caucuses and state primaries run by the party.
Usually, the elected delegates vote according to the wishes of their
constituents, although the Democratic Party also has what it calls super
delegates, who vote according to their own views. The super delegates
are mostly current or former party leaders and elected officials.
In the final days of the party's primaries this year, both Barack Obama
and Hillary Clinton courted super delegates as a way to attract the
votes needed to win the Democratic Party's nomination.
Although Senator Obama won enough delegates to secure the nomination,
Democrats plan to place Senator Clinton's name in nomination. After
acknowledging Senator Clinton's delegates, they would then be expected
to give their full support to Obama. The symbolic gesture is seen as an
attempt to unify the party after a closely fought primary season.
Professor Zelizer says this still may not be enough for some activists.
"There's not a sense that Obama's victory could be upset," he says, "but there could be some kind of protest by [Clinton] supporters if she is not
selected as vice president…there could be rallies around the convention or some
kind of symbolic protest vote."
Convention unity can often be
achieved by including the more ideological delegates in the creation of the
parties' platforms, or programs. These delegates may not represent the views of
the party's majority, but they are more likely to support the platform if they
feel their views have been heard.
This was the case 33 years ago. Conservatives
backing candidate Ronald Reagan disagreed with the moderate foreign policy of
President Gerald Ford, who was running for re-election. Mr. Ford's policy
included a relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union and the handover of the
operation of the Panama Canal to Panama.
"Reagan challenged the incumbent Republican president]
Gerald Ford. [He] insisted on a morality in foreign policy plank [of the
platform] -- criticizing the policies of [President] Ford, who was a moderate
Republican. Reagan's people insisted on having that accepted," he says.
The demands were included in the
Zelizer says today, delegates
usually reach a consensus ahead of the convention, and television viewers see a
show of harmony between the various party factions.
At this point, observers say, a public display
of discord would be…unconventional.