DENVER I'm guessing you might be a lot like me when it comes to national political nominating conventions. Dazed and frankly confused. Are there secret handshakes? Hazing? Special passwords? Does anyone do anything?
But after three days at the Democratic National Convention, I think I'm starting to figure it out.
First, there are four basic groups of people that make up the convention "scene." These include protesters, of which there are approximately seven, all looking like Joan Baez or Bob Dylan; the police, who follow around the protesters; the media, who follow around the police; and the political delegations, who get dressed up every evening and listen to speeches at an arena that can't fit them all in.
Over four days, the delegates have two votes they have to answer to: One, are you present? And two, who do you want for president?
After the second vote, which has already been decided ahead of time, everybody goes back home.
I had this part explained to me by Todd Taylor, a former chiropractor who is now executive director of the Utah Democratic Party and is attending his fifth national convention here in Denver.
"There's a lot to do, but not much to do," he says. "The business business could be taken care of in a day."
He admits it took him a few conventions to sort it all out and to learn to pace himself.
"At my first convention I remember thinking, 'Oh GREAT, it's a weeklong cocktail party!"' he says.
"At my second one I thought, 'Oh great, it's a weeklong cocktail party!' By my third one I realized, 'It's a weeklong cocktail party and I get to choose my parties."'
The best way he can describe what goes on besides the cocktail parties, namely the nightly gatherings at the Pepsi Center for speeches followed by more speeches, is "group theater."
"We're actors," he explains. "We sit in our seats, and when there's a call-out, we go crazy ... and the media shows it on television, and that's how America gets introduced to the nominee and our message."
A "call-out" is when a person known as the "section cheerleader" tells those in their seats to hold up the sign or banner they've been handed ahead of time that says "Change" or "Kennedy" or "Michelle" or "Obama" or some other rallying cry, and stand up and scream.
The cheering and sign-waving is genuine, but it's about as spontaneous as a moon launching.
This all might not work if it were, say, a junior high school field trip or a corporate retreat and half the attendees decided to go river-running instead. But as Bill Orton, the former Utah congressman and 2008 state delegate, pointed out, political junkies aren't what you'd call normal.
Going to the speeches is the fun part.
"You don't really have anything to do but sit there and say hurrah," said Orton. "There's no work here."
When you get back home, there will be all sorts of fliers to distribute and lawns that need to have Obama signs pounded in them.
I asked Orton, who, like Taylor, is also attending his fifth national convention, to sum up the convention in one sound bite.
"Well," he said, "you come to a place where they have a center that will hold maybe half as many people as are invited; you stand in lines to fight through security so you can get packed like sardines and hear talking points you've heard 50 times before so you can cheer and shout and get the attention of people in America finally paying attention who probably won't pay attention again until after the World Series."
It is particularly important to reach this vast unwashed majority of Americans suffering from political attention-deficit disorder, noted Orton, because "those are the people who make the difference and decide who will win the election."
When the week is over, if the convention has done its job, "You go back home psyched up to work for two more months so you can win the election."
So there you have it. A political convention is a weeklong televised pep rally, squeezed in around a vast amount of cocktail parties, where a lot of people who have already made up their minds who should be the next president try to make enough noise to wake up baseball fans before they go back to sleep.
Meanwhile, the police and media chase around seven protesters.Or something like that.
Lee Benson is filing columns daily from the Democratic National Convention. You can e-mail him at [email protected].