Coronavirus forced a sudden move to more or less virtual conventions. But long-term changes in our politics have been pushing in this direction for years. Once, the conventions were primarily party-driven affairs with suspense and sometimes surprising choices of nominees, however, now they are driven by the campaigns of the presidential candidates with controlled and scripted messages—a perfect fit for a virtual convention.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, party conventions were gatherings of important state party leaders who came together to select a presidential nominee. They were also used to adopt a party platform, highlight other candidates for office, and to party with members of their party. These leaders had to bargain with each other to come to a consensus on the presidential nominee, the vice-presidential nominee, and the platform.
Sometimes this bargaining resulted in long drawn out fights and compromised choices of nominees. The 1924 Democratic convention saw 103 rounds of voting over 11 days to finally select its nominee John Davis, who had received less than 3% in the first round, and who went on to be soundly defeated by Calvin Coolidge in the general election.
Vice presidents were also selected by the convention, usually as a compromise to assuage factions within the party. Democrats, for example, had a long history of pairing a southern vice-presidential nominee with a non-southern presidential nominee. Not surprisingly, presidents and vice presidents in this era were not particularly close allies, and vice presidents played a much less significant role in governing than they do today. Platform fights were also legendary, with factional and regional leaders in the party bargaining over party planks.
From 1912 to 1968, several states introduced presidential primaries, and some presidential candidates collected delegates by appealing to the vote of the people. While this was a change, state party leaders controlled many other delegates, meaning that conventions still picked the nominees.
Since 1968, the people’s voice in primaries and caucuses became dominant. Conventions exist to rubberstamp the people’s choice of a presidential nominee. Of course, there are still vestiges of older party control like super delegates or the gathering of party faithful, however, there is no great suspense of dissension. The nominee is known before the convention commences and the vice-presidential nominee is picked by the presidential nominee instead of by party leaders during the convention itself. There might be some bargaining about speakers and planks of the platform, but this bargaining is between the presidential nominee and perhaps a rival candidate or group. The result is usually some extra speakers and a compromised platform, not a disruption of the convention or changes fundamentally at odds with the presidential nominee.
Now to virtual conventions. They are the natural evolution of this move to conventions dominated by the presidential nominee rather than the bargaining of state party leaders. Even the limited options for opposing factions to boo, walk out of a convention, or generally express their displeasure are eliminated. Each speech or video is scripted and approved. In short, conventions are a several day infomercial for the presidential nominee.
The lack of drama and conflict was already a problem for television networks, which had been cutting back their convention coverage significantly over recent years. Virtual conventions face the same skepticism from the media, but the production values are higher, the time more crisply allotted, and the extraneous aspects stripped.
My point is not to pine for the good old days of brokered conventions and state party leader dominance. There are many good aspects to the new system: the people get to weigh in, parties cannot ignore their electorate, and candidates from outside the establishment can win over a party and the country. Virtual conventions complement these virtues.
In 2024, will we return to in-person conventions? Yes. While not the most important element, conventions provide the best opportunity for party faithful from across the country to come together, to meet, to celebrate their party and nominee. Some version of that will return. But the convention as a made for television production run by the presidential nominee and essentially kicking off the fall campaign will be the core, and the production lessons honed in the virtual environment (more videos, remote speeches, conversations with voters) will remain.