1. Nothing substantive comes out of the conventions.
Yes, the parties’ standard-bearers have already been selected and presented to the public. But the conventions give the parties a chance to shape their images and platforms.
The 1992 conventions pitted Republican culture warriors Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, whose calls to “take back our country” sounded tone-deaf to many voters, against Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who projected youth, vitality and progress. The country rewarded their social liberalism in November as George H.W. Bush lost his bid for a second term.
In 2004, each convention sought to portray its candidate as a war hero. The Democrats made John Kerry’s service in Vietnam a key theme, only to see it tarnished by the swift boat ad campaign. George W. Bush, who did not see combat in Vietnam, trumpeted his strong leadership after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and during the still-popular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush’s manufactured military career dominated Kerry’s actual one.
2. The nominee’s speech is the most important part of the convention.
Many of us might get our fill of the candidates before the party meetings start. However, other speeches can have a lasting effect on the rest of the campaign.
In 1980, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s attempt to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination failed, but Kennedy’s words at the convention proved memorable. His “the dream shall never die” speech, imploring the party to renew its commitment to economic justice, roused convention-goers to their feet. And his endorsement of his onetime rival helped give Carter a bump in public support.
In contrast, Buchanan’s “culture war” speech dragged down the Bush-Quayle ticket in 1992, turning off moderate voters with moralistic rhetoric.
3. The convention bounce is meaningless.
Convention bounces – higher favorability ratings for a candidate after the party’s meeting – are generally thought to occur because many voters are just beginning to pay attention to the candidates, and their first impression is usually a good one, considering that the candidates can control the setting and message at a convention much more easily than at any other time in the campaign. The bounce may be more a reflection of hype than a measure of sustained support.
But sometimes a convention can kick-start a campaign to victory, such as Bill Clinton’s in 1992. His 16-point post-convention jump in the polls, compared with George H.W. Bush’s five-point rise, was the biggest since surveys began measuring the bounce in 1964.
4. The delegates are a bunch of political hacks on a taxpayer-funded junket.
First of all, the delegates travel to the conventions at their own expense. Second, you do not need to be a current or former elected official to attend. The gatherings are certainly dominated by those with political experience, but ordinary voters – with a little ambition, luck and disposable income – have a decent shot at attending.
5. There are no surprises.
Even though a vice presidential candidate is now more likely to be selected a few weeks ahead of time, the convention is often a coming-out party, setting the tone for the rest of his or her political career. The prototypical example occurred four years ago when Sarah Palin was thrust onto the scene by John McCain. Her folksy personality charmed or rankled, depending on where you fell on the ideological spectrum. The GOP convention was must-see television simply because the country was discovering this fascinating individual.