The gatherings of Democrats and Republicans are more than just funny hats and canned speeches.
The balloons and confetti. Those funny hats. A catchy slogan. A few gauzy biographical videos, and many, many canned, repetitive speeches. One big final embrace. More balloons.
In a few nightly doses on television every four years, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions seem like little more than political pageants—pricey infomercials for the parties and their candidates. And in many respects, that’s what they have become.
Decades ago, power brokers, big-money donors, and thousands of delegates descended on a chosen city with the goal of picking and then nominating candidates for president and vice president. Since 1980, however, that purpose has changed: The conventions now are designed to sell, rather than select, the politicians who rank-and-file voters chose at the polls. They are made-for-television productions that build over four days toward a grand finale—the lengthy address that offers nominees an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters, rally the party faithful, and audition for the role of president.
“The acceptance speech is the only unmediated communication, aside from television advertising, that a candidate can have with the voters,” said Robert Shrum, the veteran Democratic consultant who has advised Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and John Kerry at conventions over the years. “The convention, if done properly, allows you to set out a narrative and that narrative is something that voters can relate to.”
In Cleveland, Donald Trump has vowed to shake up what he has called a “boring” format by bringing in some of his non-politician athlete and celebrity friends. He’s also suggested he might speak to the convention every night and dramatically unveil his running mate at the last minute—all in the name of spicing up what has become a formulaic ritual.
The Democratic convention in Philadelphia, on the other hand, should look a lot like the recent past, with speeches from the Clintons, Hillary’s yet-to-be-announced running mate, President Obama and Vice President Biden, likely Bernie Sanders, and a few of the party’s rising stars.
Technically, the conventions for both Republicans and Democrats are formal party proceedings. Each is a dressed-up legislative session held in an arena, where delegates vote on matters that have both symbolic and actual importance, including the party platform, rules, and, yes, the presidential and vice presidential nominees.
For Clinton and Trump, the goal is to keep all those squabbles about the platform and rules—the nuts and bolts of a political party—in the background, and the spotlight on themselves. Conventions in the modern era are less about the parties than the candidates, and this is their showcase. For two polarizing nomineesdisliked by a majority of the public, these eight days in July may be their last, best chance to get millions of anxious, dissatisfied Americans to embrace them, and their visions for the future.