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Analysts: Beyond Symbolism, US National Party Conventions Still Have Purpose - 2004-08-03


The bills are still pouring in, but by all accounts, the four-day party Democrats threw July 26-29 in Boston cost a lot of money. Early estimates put the price tag at $65 million, most of which will be paid for with private donations. Theoretically, the nearly 5,000 delegates who came together in Boston were there to vote for their party's presidential candidate.

At the Republican National Convention in 1860, the candidate favored to win the party nomination was a senator from the state of New York named William Seward. After three days of backroom politicking among delegates, though, the vote was finally cast, and Abraham Lincoln emerged as the man Republicans wanted in the White House. Today's political conventions no longer offer any surprises. It was clear from the very first day of this year's Democratic National Convention that one man was going to win the nomination.

"Do you know what we need to meet these challenges? We need a new commander and chief named John Kerry," said Hillary Clinton.

"We need a president who will be a symbol of respect in a world yearning to be at peace again. We need John Kerry as our president," said Edward Kennedy.

"So let us join tonight and say to America in a loud and clear voice, 'Send John Kerry!' God bless you," said Bill Clinton.

The vote that gave John Kerry the Democratic nomination wasn't unanimous. There were a handful of people who voted for Dennis Kucinich, the only one among the nine original people seeking the nomination who didn't pull out of the race. There was never any question, though, that John Kerry was going to receive the nomination. So why were millions of dollars spent and millions of Bostonians inconvenienced for the sake of a vote that was largely symbolic?

"We have them because we've been having them for 150 years, and nobody wants to stop them," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan, bi-weekly analysis of American politics. He says party conventions aren't really about nominating a presidential candidate anymore, but that doesn't mean they don't serve a purpose.

"They have turned into public relations events," he continued. "This is an opportunity for the parties to talk to the American public, to present their candidates to the American public, so in that regard, there is a political advantage to having a convention, rather than just doing this by computer somewhere."

Despite that advantage, Stuart Rothenberg says he doesn't think party conventions are worth all the fuss. He points out that the mainstream media has actually decreased its coverage of political conventions in recent years even if the 15,000 journalists who descended on Boston until July 31 seem to belie that fact. But for the party faithful who traveled thousands of kilometers to attend the Democratic National Convention, many of them at their own expense, the experience was certainly worth it.

"When I found that we were going to have the big convention here in Boston, Massachusetts, which is history, I want to be part of history," said one delegate. "Coming to this great city, I wanted to come here and see and hear and be in the same places as our forefathers and make important decisions."

"Usually, all you get is 30-second sound bites," said another delegate. "If you don't have a massive event like this, all you're going to get is 30-second sound bites, and that doesn't do it. You need to hear the total story."

"It's been really, really something to see, and to be into, being able to get around with all of the different meetings, and all of the security all around," said another delegate. "It has really been great. It's something that everyone should be able to be involved in."

Not everyone can be a delegate. It's a position that's usually reserved for people who have volunteered a great deal of time to their party. But that volunteering can begin early. This year's Democratic National Convention had hundreds of people under the age of 30 passing out buttons, directing pedestrian traffic, and answering phones. And that, too, is part of a party convention's purpose, to stimulate interest and generate support among the next generation of American leaders.

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