â€œCongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.â€
The Founders hoped the press would keep the political system honest. Â What they did not anticipate was TV on a 24-hour news cycle and social media. Â The result has been a dramatic shift in how the political parties conduct themselves and their conventions.
In 1924, the Democratic National Convention lasted sixteen days, during which time the delegates cast 103 votes. Â It was an ugly time.Â Tens of thousands of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen protested.Â The party failed in a vote for a platform plank to condemn the Klan. Â The New York Times reported daily, with headlines like â€œThe Klan Bipartisanâ€.
The nomination finally went to John W. Davis, who had garnered 2.8% of the vote on the first ballot. Â He was defeated in the general election by Calvin Coolidge.Â The split of states looked like a map of Confederacy and Union.
Skip forward almost a hundred years to 2016, in which both the Republican and Democratic conventions are well orchestrated media events, described by some as â€œfour-day infomercials.â€
In 2016, the outcome of the first ballots was known before the conventions started. Â This was the result of pledged delegates and prior announcements of the superdelegates. Â There would be no tension as votes were tallied, no drama at the reveal. Â The only unknowns were who would speak, and in what order.
Given that the outcomes were known in both cases, the focus was on the public presentation of a series of speeches intended to bolster the presumptive then nominated candidate.
The Republicans stayed away from discussion of the party platform because it was hazy. Â Speechmakers concentrated on attacks on the other partyâ€™s candidate. Â Effective it was, boosting Trump in the polls to a statistical dead heat with Clinton.
Likewise, the Democrats stayed away from discussion of the party platform, asking its delegates to approve by voice vote the platform developed before the convention started. Â The delegates filled an important role, to fill the arena and provide periodic scenes of cheering between speakers. Â Delegates for Sanders were relieved of their placards and provided with ones that were more in keeping with the push to elect Clinton.
Organizers of orchestrated conventions believe that a single message is most effective at the election of the candidate. Â The subtext is â€œIf you arenâ€™t with us, youâ€™re against us.â€ Â In the case of the Democratic Party, this preparation began early in the campaign. Â Indeed DNC operatives Deborah Wasserman Schulz and Donna Brazile wrote emails clearly opposed to Bernie Sanders.
As usual, safety and security were used as excuses to manage who could enter the venue and the signs that were allowed. Â When Bernie supporters started betting rowdy, they were disallowed entry. Â There was no discussion of their political viewpoint, only that the capacity of the building was being exceeded.
Sanders supporters were miffed that delegations from key battleground states committed to Hillary were seated closer to the stage. Â Red states and Sanders states were seated farther from the stage. Â This, they claim, reflected the DNCâ€™s advocacy of Clinton. Reports that Sanders supporters were broadly excluded from the convention and their chairs filled with actors turned out to be untrue.
If in 2020 the primaries are inconclusive, leading to one or two contested conventions, we may see some drama again. Â If not, weâ€™re in for two well-crafted four-day infomercials.