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Live from Cleveland: A history of messy and not-so-messy conventions

We are about to be treated to two solid weeks of political conventions. Both sides have made at least a temporary peace within the big, sprawling, boisterous assemblies that are modern American political parties. Like very large, dysfunctional families who stop fighting long enough once every four years to take a family photo in which everyone is smiling, the two parties in the coming weeks will be beaming. Starting with the Republicans and followed by the Democrats (by tradition the incumbent party always goes second), each party will do their best to show unity and to convince the voters that sweetness and light awaits the voters who elect them, while bleakness and dark awaits if the other side wins.

But getting voters to pay attention to the conventions has been getting harder and harder. Holding a radio and then television audience captive was easy in the era before primaries because there was real drama at the convention as the delegates and the power brokers figured out who to nominate. Once nominating conventions turned the nomination process over to the voters (roughly between 1968 and 1976)—the conventions were left with no real business to do. So they gradually morphed into four-day advertising extravaganzas. And, as could be expected, Americans, inured to advertising of all types, got less and less interested in watching conventions. In the earliest years that the Nielsen company measured ratings of viewership of the conventions,1960, 1964 and 1968, years during which the convention mattered more than the primaries—ratings were robust. Only the 1976 Republican Convention approaches the large audiences of the early conventions. In that year, Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent president Gerald Ford right up until and into the convention, thus providing the drama of earlier conventions.

So next week everyone from the interns to the presidential candidates themselves will be working hard to try and get enough attention to their candidate that he or she gets the proverbial “bounce” out of the convention. The “bounce” refers to an uptick in the polls that has often followed a successful convention. An article by James Deaville shows that convention “bounces” vary from the Bill Clinton’s 16 point bounce in 1992 to the zero points that George McGovern got in 1972 from his convention. But bounces often don’t last. In 1980 Jimmy Carter got the second largest bounce in this table but in November he lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

So, as we enter the convention weeks the planners hope to get attention and they hope that the attention they get is positive enough to get a “bounce” that will last. To see what has shaped thinking on how a convention should be run, let’s start with what has to be the worst convention in the post-reform era. Focusing on the post-reform era (where primaries came to dominate the process) allows us to narrow the field somewhat and to leave out the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York which took 103 ballots to nominate a candidate and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago known for its violence inside and outside the convention hall.

The Worst Convention…

The worst convention in modern time has to be the 1972 Democratic Convention. Senator George McGovern was a deeply unpopular figure within certain powerful segments of the Democratic Party back then. His coalition of anti-Vietnam war protesters, feminists and civil rights activists stole the nomination out from under the big city and union bosses who had run the Democratic party for years. When McGovern’s forces arrived in Miami they found that the old fashioned “bosses” had put together an “ABM” movement—for “Anybody But McGovern.” In a long series of challenges to credentials and rules, the McGovern forces beat back the party regulars—as they were called. In the course of these actions a young Jesse Jackson and his delegation of reformers unseated the powerful Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. In a challenge to California’s winner-take-all primary, McGovern delegates held their noses and voted against the proportional rules they were advocating for the rest of the party. And in the South Carolina challenge, the McGovern forces betrayed the feminists who had supported him by whipping votes against the women’s position.

All in all a group of idealistic reformers were forced to play political hardball to save McGovern’s nomination—at which point the convention fights had gone on so long that McGovern appeared on television at 2:00 in the morning long after the television audience had gone to sleep. It was far too late for McGovern to try and overcome the damage that had been done to his nomination. Note McGovern’s referring to his speech as the “sunrise” benediction.

As if the convention itself wasn’t bad enough, it was immediately followed by revelations that McGovern’s Vice Presidential choice, Senator Thomas Eagleton had concealed the fact that he had been treated for depression with electric shock therapy. The McGovern campaign was thrown into chaos and Eagleton was eventually dumped from the ticket. By the time the general election started in earnest McGovern was in a hole that he never did get out of. The Democrats left Miami divided and dispirited and lost in a landslide in November.

Winning while losing…

Four years later the Republicans had their own convention mess to contend with. Ronald Reagan and incumbent President Gerald Ford had fought tooth and nail throughout the primary season. Reagan came into the convention in Kansas City, Missouri, just behind Ford and tried to wrest control of the convention from Ford through a series of credentials challenges and rules fights. The fight was cast as a fight for the soul of the party; pitting traditional business Republicans against the more hard-core ideological Republicans that Ronald Reagan led.

But in the end the power of incumbency helped President Ford hold onto the Republican nomination. Reagan’s impromptu concession speech at the Convention was so stirring and so charismatic that, as the commentator in this clip notes: many in the room felt that the wrong man had been nominated. Reagan’s gesture was eloquent and magnanimous. And the Party remembered. Four years later he was elected President of the United States.

Sore Loser

Contrast Reagan’s grace in defeat with Senator Ted Kennedy’s reluctant endorsement four years later at the Democratic convention in New York. Like Reagan, Kennedy had mounted a strong challenge to an unpopular president, President Jimmy Carter. And like Reagan, Kennedy took his fight all the way to the convention, hoping to change delegates’ minds and convince them to support him over President Carter. In the course of the convention Kennedy gave one of the most stirring convention speeches ever—known in shorthand as the “sail against the wind” speech.

But while the speech thrilled the convention hall it did little to change delegates’ minds, and Carter was nominated for a second term. On the final night of the convention Carter and his lieutenants were desperately seeking a Kennedy endorsement. But as various elected officials joined Carter and his Vice President Walter Mondale on stage to hold up their hands in the traditional victory tableau, Senator Kennedy was nowhere to be found. He finally showed up but rather than walk up to the President and give him the photo that would spell party unity, Kennedy wandered aimlessly around the stage while the President of the United States seems to chase him down. Finally, after what was only a few minutes but what seemed an eternity to the President’s people, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill practically forced the two men to shake hands and gave President Carter the photo he needed.

But it was too little too late. Carter had many problems. And he lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide in November.

Cleveland and Philadelphia

These are but some of the stories that give convention planners nightmares. Getting rid of any fights that could possibly delay the crucial primetime slots is the biggest concern. The Republicans were well on their way to accomplishing this when they seemed to crush the Never Trump movement in the Rules Committee meetings last week. Democrats seem to have made Bernie Sanders happy by including many of his key positions in the platform. So he endorsed Hillary Clinton, ultimately abandoning his plan to take his fight to the convention. There should be no middle of the night acceptance speeches this year.

There may be some eloquent surprises. For instance, does Ted Cruz improve his standing and increase his chances of success next year by making peace with Donald Trump as Reagan did with Ford in 1976?

There could be some sore losers, too. Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Clinton spent a long time on Bernie Sanders. Will his convention behavior be similar?

In a year that has already defied prediction everyone knows what they do and don’t want to happen based on what has gone before. What they don’t know is what new surprises are down the road and around the corner.

Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. She is a superdelegate to the Democratic convention.

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