As I write this, weather reports suggest that the Republican Convention may be disrupted by Hurricane Isaac. Some pundits are saying that this could diminish the Romney campaign's "convention bounce," the increase in poll numbers that has come after past conventions as a result of voters tuning in. However, conventions have steadily been losing their ability to provide such a benefit, and this year will likely be a continuation of that trend. Conventions no longer provide any suspense, drama or news.
Before primaries created delegates who were committed in advance, uncommitted delegates with no prior obligations dominated conventions. They made them places of high-stakes political horse trading. Competing candidates wooed and bargained, promising favors for individual states and hinting at appointments to high position. I remember being glued to the radio at convention time as a youth, listening to the speeches and following the ebb and flow of the battles going on.
There was plenty of drama to be heard. In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower went to the convention trailing Sen. Robert Taft, but once there, through a series of floor motions, shifted the momentum away from Taft by challenging the seating of some of the Taft delegates. The votes on those motions were very close. However, by winning them, Eisenhower set the table for a dramatic first ballot victory. Then he chose Sen. Richard Nixon as his running mate and created more political pulling and hauling. It was gripping.
Television entered the arena, providing "gavel to gavel coverage" as new dramas arose. In 1956, Gov. Adlai Stevenson forfeited his right to name the vice presidential candidate and allowed the convention to do it. A young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, reached for the prize, almost got it, and received enough national exposure to set him up for his successful run for the top spot in 1960.
In 1964, I attended the convention where the drama came from a "Stop Goldwater" movement that included Gov. George Romney of Michigan. It was a tense scene as Nelson Rockefeller was booed and Sen. Barry Goldwater didn't win until the roll call of states reached Wyoming.
Enough nostalgia; let's talk about Tampa in 2012. Even if the weather is perfect, the convention will not hold public attention in any way comparable to the conventions I've described. The nominee has been known for months, his running mate for weeks, and the speeches have all been carefully scripted in advance. Recognizing that no one would watch the proceedings "gavel to gavel," several networks have said they will broadcast no more than one hour per night. That's just good business on their part; viewership during the convention will not approach that of the Super Bowl or the Oscars.
That's why any "convention bounce" will be modest, if there is one at all. Nonetheless, if that is the case, look for many in the media to cite the lack of bounce as proof that Romney is in trouble, and predict dire consequences for him in November. Those who do so are ignoring the fact that conventions have become increasingly irrelevant.
They survive because they are opportunities for the Party to party, to gather around the nominee in person, rather than electronically, and build internal enthusiasm for the fall. That has some value — a little old fashioned hoopla can be fun — but relying on a wave of enthusiasm coming from a convention to sweep the country is a thing of the past. This is the electronic age; blog posts, e-mails and text messages have edged conventions aside as drivers of "bounce."
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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