Politics For Dummies
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Both major U.S. political parties hold conventions during the summer of a presidential election year. Delegates to each convention ratify the party’s choice for president and nominate the choice for vice president.

Independent candidates for president don’t undergo the nominating process; after all, independent candidates don’t represent a party. Because they don’t have to secure a party’s nomination for president, they don’t enter primaries or caucuses or hold conventions.

Sending delegates to the national convention

The national conventions are held every four years in the summer of the presidential election year. The party to which the current president belongs holds its convention in August; the other party, or out party, traditionally holds its convention in July. The national committee of each party decides where to hold its convention.

The national committees of both parties consist of party officials from the 50 states and representatives of other groups within the party organizations. Each state party decides how it selects its representatives to the national committee, subject to national party rules. The rules for each party may differ in the same state. For example, in 2020, Democrats in Kentucky will hold a primary but Republicans in Kentucky will caucus. Conversely, Republicans in the state of Washington hold a primary; Democrats in Washington, a caucus. Each political party can decide how it wants its nominee chosen.

Democratic and Republican Party representatives, called national delegates, meet at the party’s national convention to vote for the nominees for president and vice president. Each state has a number of delegates allocated to each party based on the population and the relative strength of each party in the state. The total number of delegates is different for each party, but each party’s nominee must win a majority of those delegates in order to win.

Conventions don’t choose presidential nominees

At one time, the national conventions chose presidential nominees — often requiring drawn-out fights with repeated ballots before settling on a choice. The results could be a genuine surprise. The national conventions no longer choose the nominees in most cases. Presidential primaries and caucus or conventions determine which candidates have enough votes to be the nominees. Generally speaking, the conventions simply ratify those choices. However, if there is no clear winner after the primary and caucus season, there is always the possibility of a brokered convention — one where the delegates choose the nominee.

The national conventions rubber-stamp the primary, caucus, and convention selections that occur in each state from February to June of the election year. The trend in the United States in the past 25 years has been toward primary selection for the national delegates based on the primary showings of the presidential candidates. In some states, voters express their preference for presidential candidates, and the delegates are selected later by way of a different selection process. In other states, voters directly select the delegates. The ballot may or may not indicate which candidate the delegate is supporting.

The selection process varies from state to state, and from party to party within the same state. For example, in 2016, Democrats used the primary in states whereas the Republicans used a caucus or state convention to choose their delegates. In 1968, only 17 states chose their delegates by primary. In 2020, more than 40 states will use this method.

Because the national conventions ratify the choices of voters and party leaders, those voters participating in the primaries, conventions, and caucuses play a much more important role in the selection of the presidential nominees than ever before. By voting in your presidential primary or participating in your party’s caucus or convention, you have an important role to play in who will be the next president of the United States.

These days, most delegates go to a convention committed to vote for a certain candidate on the first ballot. That’s particularly important because all the nominees of both parties have been selected on the first ballot ever since the time Democrats required three ballots to nominate Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois for president.

What happens at the national conventions?

The national conventions play a less important role than they once did in selecting nominees, but they still perform other useful functions. Here are some of the roles that national conventions fill:
  • Approve the selection of the presidential nominees.
  • Approve the selection of the vice-presidential nominees.
  • Adopt party platforms.
  • Adopt the rules that govern the parties for the coming four years.
  • Showcase the candidates and future candidates of the parties.
  • Rally the troops for the fall campaign.

Selecting the vice president

No method is in place for the general public to choose nominees for vice president. The choice of vice president is in the hands of the convention delegates. The conventions traditionally defer to the nominee for president to choose a running mate, who is then presented for nomination to the convention.

Presidential nominees have to consider the wishes of the delegates because the delegates have the right to reject the presidential nominee’s choice if it meets with disfavor. Occasionally, presidential candidates generate excitement and a spirited campaign by throwing the nomination of a vice presidential candidate to the delegates to choose. See the nearby sidebar, “When the convention chose the running mate,” for details.

Sometimes, the choice of a running mate provides the only element of suspense in the convention proceedings. The delegates often don’t know the nominee’s choice for a running mate until the convention actually begins. George H. W. Bush made his surprise announcement of Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his choice for vice president as the Republican National Convention began in New Orleans in 1988.

Adopting platforms

Conventions adopt platforms, which are declarations of principles and policies for the national parties, and thereby develop a consensus approach to important issues of the day. The platforms define who the parties are and what they stand for. Platforms can also serve as the framework for discussing the issues to be debated in the fall election campaign.

Unifying the party

Each party’s convention adopts the rules for governing the party for the next four years and resolves questions about how to run the party. The convention serves to focus party members’ attention on the opposing party and candidates rather than on rifts within the party itself.

The various factions of the parties that supported losing candidates during the nominating season are encouraged to focus on issues that unite them rather than on issues that divide them. The convention showcases the party nominees, calls attention to the party’s rising stars, and unifies the party faithful.

National conventions serve to unite the Republicans or Democrats in a common cause: electing a national ticket. Parties spend a great deal of time and money organizing these conventions. After the 2012 national conventions, for which each party received $18.5 million from the federal government, Congress changed the law. The parties no longer receive federal money directly. Instead, the federal government gives $50 million to local law enforcement in the city where each convention is held to provide security at the conventions. Now each party raises millions from private sources to run their quadrennial conventions.

The Politics of the Conventions

At national conventions, everything is organized because the organizers want nothing left to chance. Even the placement of the state delegations is the subject of much debate and jockeying. Every delegation wants to be seen on television. Every delegation wants to be immediately in front of the stage to be able to see the nominees and other dignitaries up close and personal.

Who gets to address the conventions and what the speakers get to say are also rigidly controlled matters. With the possible exception of former presidents, speakers must submit their remarks in advance to those party leaders in charge of the convention and receive clearance for what they want to say.

If you watch conventions on television, you see many floor demonstrations. Delegates march around the floor waving signs and chanting. These demonstrations appear to begin spontaneously in the crowd and spread through the hall, gathering force as they go. Those “spontaneous” demonstrations are actually carefully orchestrated. Delegates are told not only when to demonstrate but also which signs to wave.

The convention organizers distribute many signs of different shapes and colors during the convention. Delegates may be told to wave the red, square signs at one point and the blue, rectangular ones at another.

Creating the right effect

Campaigns leave nothing to chance at their national conventions because appearance is important when the national media is watching closely and where some cable networks are providing gavel-to-gavel coverage. If the event is staged properly, it can emphasize the unity of the party and its enthusiasm for its candidates. A successful convention can set the mood for the fall campaign and project an image of confidence.

A poorly executed convention can have a negative impact on a party’s chances in November. In 1992, the Republican Party heavily emphasized family values and religion. The speeches at the convention struck many viewers as strident and extreme; the language Pat Buchanan used to appeal to "traditional family values," for example, was so extreme that many political observers have ever since referred to it as his “raw meat” speech. The strong language may have appealed to Republican delegates sitting in the audience, but it frightened the less partisan voters, particularly women, watching the convention at home. Many convention follow-up stories cited public opinion research that showed voters’ uneasiness by what was viewed as the exclusionary message of the Republican convention.

Concentrating partisan energies

Although everything is carefully scripted, the conventions are great unifying and energizing forces for Democrats and Republicans alike. When the delegates leave the convention, they’re part of something bigger than themselves. That something the delegates are part of has a clearly defined objective: victory in November.

The delegates leave eager to get home and accomplish the objective. The conclusions of the conventions unleash a flood of energy that flows across the country into every state in the union. The timing of the floodgate’s opening is also important because the conclusion of the national conventions signifies the start of the fall campaign.

Play your role as a voter

Today, more people have the opportunity to participate in presidential selection because more states are using the primary selection method. Millions of Americans participated in selecting the nominees of both parties in 2016, but the overall percentage was still very low. This lack of participation has been true for a while — only 28.5 percent of the voting-age population in primary states bothers to vote for presidential candidates. The record primary turnout was 2008, when 30.4 percent of voting age citizens cast ballots.

More people have to participate in the selection process. Democracy works well only when people inform themselves about the issues and the candidates and make their wishes known. Reading this book is a great way to become informed about the process and prepare to participate on every level, including helping to choose the next president of the United States.

If you don’t like the alternatives, change them. Run for office yourself or persuade good people to do so. Work for their election. Tell your neighbors and friends to vote for them. Contribute to their campaigns. Get off your duff and make things better.

If you think that money plays too big of a role in politics, get campaign finance reform laws passed in your state. Start a movement to change the campaign finance laws on the federal level. Even constitutional amendments to change the consequences of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision are possible if there’s enough momentum behind them. Every journey begins with a single step. If you take that step, you may start a movement to improve democracy in the United States, which would be a pretty good legacy to leave your children.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Ann M. DeLaney is currently a Standing Trustee in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy for the Southern District of Indiana. She was the first woman to serve as Chair of a major political party in Indiana and the first woman nominated by a major party as a candidate for Indiana Lieutenant Governor. She has been a delegate to state and national party conventions.

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