Eminent political wonk Michael Barone discusses in this WSJ article how the purpose of national political conventions has changed. Barone recounts the history of U.S. national political conventions. Candidates were once selected at conventions, he asserts, because that was the best medium for political operators to exchange information and to deal. That is, conventions used to be primarily about communication.
Barone discusses how the communication world has changed. As recent as the early 60s, long-distance phone calls were rare because “they cost about $1 a minute at a time when factory workers earned $100 a week.” Political operators still relied on mailing letters as a significant form of exchanging information.
Not long after those days, however, the communication world started to change. An increasing number and variety of communication channels have opened up, and communication costs relative to earnings have plummeted. In this day of cell phones, ubiquitous long-distance calls, easy air travel, Blackberries, the Internet, blogs, etc, exchange of political information is open and easy.
Conventions are no longer needed for the exchange of information and deal making. That happens on an ongoing basis. Today, national conventions are spectacles that “can be (though aren't always) effective advertisements for [party] nominees, who have of course been chosen months before.”
But isn’t there a chance in both parties that no candidate will emerge from the primaries with a majority of delegate votes? Yes, that chance exists, says Barone. But he insists that in that case, deal making will occur on the fly. Regardless of how the votes fall, Barone says that each party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees will have been selected long before the national conventions.
The mystique of the national convention is something now relegated to a bygone era. Instead of smoke-filled rooms, deals are cut today in conference calls and net meetings. It’s a similar process, but it happens in real time with participants scattered across the nation.
Consequently, few people nowadays tune into more than a few minutes of the political conventions. Most people that show any interest at all are content to catch a few sound bytes. If the day comes that political parties no longer have any hope of national conventions being effective advertising, we will see those conventions disappear altogether.