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With the advent of television and the widespread adoption of primaries, the national parties' nominating conventions have largely been reduced from decision-making bodies to a rubber stamp function.  The conventions are, in fact, tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.   Nonetheless, these quadrennial gatherings still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties and can provide a boost for the nominee.


Democratic National Convention
Boston, Massachusetts
July 26-29, 2004


Republican National Convention
New York, New York
August 30 to September 2, 2004

The Changing Character of Conventions
In the past, the national convention served as a decision-making body, actually determining the party's nominee. For example, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots to select John Davis as the nominee. The last Democratic Convention to go beyond one ballot occurred in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot; the 1948 Republican Convention went to a third ballot before New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey won the nomination.  Republicans had a close vote in 1976 in Kansas City when President Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan by 1187 votes to 1070 votes.

Two significant changes have occurred in recent decades. First, most of the national convention delegates are now selected by voters in primary contests rather than by party caucuses and meetings. Second, with the advent of television, conventions have become tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.  Each party seeks to present itself in the best possible light and to demonstrate a united front rather than to hash out its differences.

While conventions have always attracted an assortment of demonstrators, coordinated mobilizations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the 2000 conventions drew thousands of activists advocating a range of progressive issues; these necessitated major police presences.  Shadow Conventions were also held in the two cities.  In 2003 activists opposed to the Republicans gathering in New York began organizing under the banner "RNC Not Welcome."

One could argue that modern day conventions are little more than four-day advertisements for the political parties. Because there is no longer much suspense, conventions have suffered declining viewership, coverage by the major networks has been cut, and some observers have suggested that the conventions themselves should be cut to three days.

The conventions may have been reduced to rubber stamps, but they still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties. In many ways, the essence of a convention is what happens off of the convention floor. In the lead-up to the convention, the drafting of the party platform provides interests aligned with the party a forum to present their concerns. During the days of the convention itself, hundreds of events, caucuses, receptions, breakfasts, fundraisers, and parties take place in the hotels surrounding the convention hall. At the end of the convention, party activists return to their communities energized for the fall campaign and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a convention bounce.

The major party conventions are funded by grants from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the $3 income tax check-off), by non-partisan, non-profit host committees, and to a lesser degree by local taxpayers.  For their 2004 conventions, the Democrats and Republicans each received grants of about $14.5 million; this amount is the $4 million set in 1974 by the Federal Election Campaign Act plus a cost-of-living adjustment.  On June 30, 2003 the FEC certified the Democratic and Republican parties are each entitled to received $14,592,000 in public funds to put on their 2004 national conventions, and sent letters to the Secretary of the Treasury requesting the payments be made; additional inflation adjustments will be added in 2004.
Host committees fulfill a range of functions.  [11 CFR 9008.52].  Early on they promote the city's bid.  If the city is successful, the host committee sets to work raising money and in-kind contributions, recruiting volunteers and organizing events and activities to welcome delegates and media.  Corporate contributions to host committees and "municipal funds" have comprised an increasing share of spending on conventions, leading for some to call for stricter regulations.  [Campaign Finance Institute report]. 

Party Platforms
The platform outlines the party's philosophy and priorities.  Truth be told party platforms are not widely read documents, but the process of writing a platform affords the party the opportunity to publicly seek input from its various constituencies.  During platform discussions some points of contention do arise, such as the Republican Party's quadrennial battle over its abortion plank, but generally any major dissension is ironed out before the platform reaches the convention.

Third Party Conventions
While the big networks have been giving less coverage to major party conventions in recent years, they generally have ignored third party conventions altogether.  Fortunately C-SPAN does cover these gatherings, as they provide one of the best opportunities to learn about ideas and viewpoints beyond those of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Site Selection Process is an Intricate Dance        Details: Dems | Reps
Only about two dozen American cities have the facilities, infrastructure and wherewithall to host one of the major party's quadrennial nominating conventions [see A Parody].  Because of the substantial financial commitment required and the demands on infrastructure, many of these cities opt not to pursue a convention bid.  Yet, holding a national convention does provide a significant economic boost to a city, and interested cities make substantial efforts to woo the parties. 

For both the Democrats and the Republicans, the process of selecting the convention site takes almost a year [see also Site Selection 2000].  At their winter meetings in January 2002, both parties named committees to select the sites of their 2004 national nominating conventions.  Democrats created a 40-member Site Advisory Committee; while a 9-member Site Selection Committee was established to do the work for the Republicans.

Democrats considered four cities--Boston, Miami, Detroit and New York City--and on November 13, 2002 announced their choice of Boston.  Republicans considered three cities--New Orleans, New York and Tampa-St. Petersburg--and on January 6, 2003 announced their choice of New York. 

Hosting one of the major parties' national conventions provides a significant economic boost to a city, but competing for and hosting a convention likewise imposes major obligations.1  To mount a successful bid, political, civic and business leaders must be firmly united behind the effort.

As the selection process began in the first part of 2002, New York City was a sentimental favorite to hold at least one, and possibly both, of the conventions as a show of support following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  The last time a city hosted both conventions occurred in 1972; the city was Miami Beach.  However, the Democrats' RFP had an exclusivity clause in it, meaning that once a city is chosen to host the party's convention it must agree to drop any efforts to attract the other party's convention.  New York City would not agree to that, although Democrats might possibly have waived the provision if they had determined New York was the best site and been convinced that the city would have put its full resources into the Democratic convention.  (If New York City had hosted both conventions, the Democrats, who are going first, would have had to vacate the convention hall promptly at the end of their festivities, and it would then been re-dressed to make it look different for the Republicans).  Various media portrayed the efforts of New York and Boston as a contest between the Clintons, namely Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Kennedys, in the form of veteran Sen. Edward Kennedy. 

Timing is another factor.  Both parties had to work around the 2004 Olympic Games, to be held in Athens, Greece from August 13-29, 2004.  DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe had settled on holding the Democrats' convention the week of July 18, 2004.  Then the Republicans announced the dates of their convention as August 30-September 2, 2004, the latest a Republican convention has ever been held.  (Democrats held a relatively late convention in 1996; their Chicago convention went from Aug. 26-29, 1996).  McAuliffe responded by making it clear that he would likely move the Democrats' convention to a later date to create the best possible conditions for the party's nominee.

Democrats had a number of concerns about the late Republican convention.  In particular, it is widely expected that during the primaries the Bush re-election campaign will forego federal matching funds and will raise and spend record amounts of money up until the convention, at which time it will take the general election grant ($20 million in 1974 dollars, adjusted for inflation; in 2000 the figure was $67.56 million).  Between their late convention and election day, Republicans will have two months to spend that sum, while Democrats will have to spread the money out over more than three months.  Democrats also worry that that any "bounce" they achieve will dissipate over the months between the convention and Election Day.

1.  A March 2004 analysis by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University concluded that "the overall effect on the Boston metropolitan area economy is an increase of $121.6 million in direct, indirect and induced value added."  However, an April 13, 2004 update, taking into account the loss of Sail Boston 2004 and the U.S.A. Gymnastics qualifying event and the closure of parts of I-93 and North Station, concluded that "Boston would lose $12.8 million in economic activity as a result of the convention."  See BHI FaxSheet.  "The Democrats are coming: What it means to the Boston economy," March 30, 2004, Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University; and Paul Bachman and John Barrett. "Economic Effects on the Boston Area of the 2004 Democratic National Convention," April 13, 2004, Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University.

Sites of Recent Major Party Conventions

2000 Philadelphia, PA  July 31-Aug. 3 Los Angeles, CA  Aug. 14-17
1996 San Diego, CA  Aug 12-15 Chicago, IL  Aug. 26-29
1992 Houston, TX  Aug. 17-20 New York, NY  July 13-16
1988 New Orleans, LA  Aug. 15-18 Atlanta, GA  July 18-21
1984 Dallas, TX San Francisco, CA
1980 Detroit, MI New York, NY
1976 Kansas City, MO New York, NY
1972 Miami Beach, FL Miami Beach, FL
1968 Miami Beach, FL Chicago, IL
1964 San Francisco, CA Atlantic City, NJ
1960 Chicago, IL Los Angeles, CA

Copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.