Conventions: Can We Keep Meeting Like This?

The stories are only beginning. With the Democratic National Convention in Boston next week, we are being reminded that the political conventions are the dinosaurs of politics.

They haven’t determined a president for two generations and aren’t even forums for revealing a vice president any more. These tightly-scripted exercises in stagecraft — amid a pep-rally ambience — have been deemed worthy of reduced coverage by the networks. Ironically, however, the nets still manage to over-analyze everything and over-cover inane, soft-news features.

But just because the nominees have been pre-selected, platform planks pre-set and goofy hats prepared, doesn’t mean these quadrennial gatherings are nothing more than atavistic coronations exuding pomp and partisanship. Just because there’s a surfeit of in-house cheerleading, incessant backslapping, non-stop networking and a lot of politico-celebrity gawking, doesn’t mean there isn’t value.

It is this. Political conventions serve the same function as any other convention, whether it’s pharmaceuticals or auto supplies. It’s the perfect forum to energize the troops to go forth and, well, sell. In this case, a ticket, a message and a party.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus called such schmooze fests a “reward” for the county organizations and all those who “labor in the trenches.” It’s a way to gather party faithful, she says, and send them home psychologically stoked.

“It’s really about those who are the backbone of the party,” explained MacManus. “These are the people who can make or break a campaign between now and November. This is where state networks get together and discuss the issues and strategies. This is not unimportant.”

I still hearken back to a delegate I spoke to during the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia. His name was Joseph Kasper; he was from New York City; and he was sporting a faux campaign button adorned with the dual visages of Hillary Clinton and Al Sharpton. He spoke to the “newsworthiness” of the event.

“There’s plenty of drama and news during the primaries and again in November,” he opined. “Here I don’t need drama and news. Here I need to feel pumped as I head back to my district, which is four-to-one Democratic, and motivate our people to work their butts off. I come out of here fortified by this experience.”

And while the networks reduce their coverage to prime time, there remains the reality that there’s still plenty of other media attention — ranging from myriad daily newspapers and on-line pundits to cable, PBS and C-SPAN. Enough arguably that a politically somnolent electorate can still be awakened.

“One of the biggest problems we have in this country is voter apathy,” points out Tampa developer Al Austin, the consummate Republican Party insider and delegate to the 2000 GOP convention. “An event like this is an opportunity to get people focused on the fact that there’s a presidential election coming up. It’s a way for voters to get aware and interested — and introduced to candidates.”

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