Ideally, an American Presidential Election is a race between two worthy men, two worthy ideals, battling it out on the National Stage in the weeks before the National Election in November when the American People make the worthiest selection. Sadly, it seems as though the race often comes down to selecting the lesser evil. The American form of democracy has been said to be the worst possible form of government, except for everything else!
The Presidential Race usually boils down to two major candidates, although the US Constitution makes no provision for a two-person race or even a limit to the number of candidates. Many of the Founding Fathers warned against the formation of Political Parties, but it did not take long for factions to split into party alliances. The earliest Political Parties in America were Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists who were opposed by Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.
The first Presidential Nominating Convention was held by the Anti-Masonic Party in 1831 at a saloon in Baltimore. The Anti-Masons were a single-issue party, but their power of organization turned them into a force to be reckoned with. The Jacksonian Democrats followed their example (at the same saloon) and Nominating Conventions have been a part of the election process ever since.
In the modern two-party system, the nominating conventions take place every four years during the summer before the General Election. The Incumbent Party (the Party which the sitting President belongs to) usually holds their convention after the Challenging Party. Presidential Election Years also fall during Olympic Years, so an informal tradition developed that one Party’s Convention takes place in the weeks before the Summer Games, formal campaigning essentially stops during the Games, and the other Party Convention begins afterward (another informal campaign break occurs during Baseball’s World Series because no true American would let something as trivial as a Presidential Election distract them from something as important as Baseball).
Each Party has its own rules and procedures for the convention. In many modern races, the presumptive Nominee is known before the end of the Caucus and Primary Election cycle, but the Convention is still an important part of the Election Process to rally support for the Candidate. An important function of the Convention is the creation of the Party Platform. The Platform is a statement of principals or goals that the Party hopes to fulfill by getting their Candidate elected.
During the Presidential Nominating Convention, meetings are held during the day where policy is developed. In a “contested Convention” where the Nominee is not selected before the event begins, these “cigar smoke-filled rooms” are where the negotiations occur. The last time the results of a convention were not obvious before the event began was the 1976 Republican Convention when Ronald Reagan nearly wrested the nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford. In the evenings, all the delegates attend the general meeting in the main hall to hear speeches from the Party’s “rising stars”.
The broadcast era has brought these speeches out of the Convention Hall and made the entire Nation their audience. NBC anchorman John Chancellor said before the 1972 Democratic National Convention that, “Convention coverage is the most important thing we do. The conventions are not just political theater, but really serious stuff”. However, during the 1996 Republican National Convention, ABC’s Ted Koppel went home in the middle of the convention, stating that it had become an “infomercial” for the Candidate and no longer a news event.
As we go into the next general election, give a listen to this selection of Convention speeches from the past before you decide the historic importance of the Nominating Conventions.