It’s convention season, when party insiders gather in sterile conference centers to pick the person who appears on the first line of the primary ballot. Conventions are full of intrigue, back-stabbing, and drama, to be sure, but they’re also increasingly irrelevant. Why bother even having them?
Republican delegates met last week down at Foxwoods — insert your own gambling metaphor here — and eventually coughed up Mark Boughton and Joe Markley as the endorsed candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. It’s an odd combination. Boughton is about as exciting as a lukewarm pancake, while the much more affable Markley is known for gleefully taking up positions far to the right of most voters.
Unfortunately for Boughton, the convention didn’t do much to weed out the rest of the massive pack of gubernatorial candidates. Two of them, David Walker and Peter Lumaj, washed out, but the rest of the candidates are still in. Tim Herbst and Steve Obsitnik both qualified to primary by getting 15 percent of the delegates to vote for them, but everyone else will try to petition their way in. Two wealthy self-funders, Bob Stefanowski and David Stemerman, skipped the convention altogether to focus on primary petitions. It’s going to be a crowded August.
The rest of the endorsed ticket was a mix of the bland and the blonde. Some will survive a primary, some won’t. So what exactly was the point of the convention?
Democrats shouldn’t feel much better, though. Their upcoming convention is likely to be a snooze-fest, thanks to the announcement that the two presumptive frontrunners, Ned Lamont and Susan Bysiewicz, had joined forces. Bysiewicz inexplicably became Lamont’s running mate, prompting groans from Democrats all over the state and dashing the hopes of urban leaders who had high hopes for a more diverse ticket.
Yes, there are other much less well-known candidates, but Lamont/Bysiewicz feels depressingly inevitable. Maybe we’ll be surprised in August, but barring a last-minute lieutenant governor challenge the convention is likely sewn up for them. Any excitement will come from the down-ballot races, though endorsement at the convention isn’t any kind of guarantee of success in the inevitable primary.
So why bother with the convention at all? Why have the party’s delegates endorse candidates when it’s the voters who will make the final choice?
The unsatisfying answer is that they’re a tradition that has yet to die out. Conventions are a relic of the days when candidates were chosen by party insiders in smoke-filled rooms, and they predate party primaries, which didn’t really become the norm until the late 1960s, by over a century. Conventions often smack of elitism to outsiders, and arcane weirdness like vote-switching — which cost national teacher of the year and legitimately exciting 5th Congressional District candidate Jahana Hayes the endorsement of her convention — just make the whole thing seem rigged.
The good news is that most voters don’t pay much attention to the conventions. There’s such a long period of time between the May convention and the August primary that the endorsement of the party is almost an afterthought. Party endorsement doesn’t guarantee any kind of financial or organizational support, either — all of that is saved for the actual nominee who emerges from the primary. Independent Oz Griebel and his running mate Monte Frank thumbed their noses at the drab formality of conventions by holding a “public convention” open to anyone, with live music, food, and entertainment.
Besides, political parties are both more and far less relevant these days. The actual party structure, governed by often-unelected political insiders, is much weaker now than it was back in the days of the smoke-filled rooms. Party chairs are no longer the kingmakers they were in the days of Boss Tweed and Connecticut’s John Bailey, and the establishment in both parties are widely distrusted by voters.
However, the party label is more powerful than ever as political affiliation and culture align. Republican and Democrat are profound cultural signifiers; they’re less the names of political parties than of tribes.
That reality is going to lead us to ruin someday soon — but it can’t be ignored. Conventions are outmoded and closed, and they don’t belong in whatever this is that our politics have become.
So let’s get rid of them. We don’t need them. Let everybody petition their way onto the ballot, and let voters decide. If we really want to open up this process — and maybe find some way to start building bridges between parties — we need to let everyone vote in the primaries. Better yet, let’s institute a two-round election in which everyone, regardless of party, competes to be one of the two to advance to the final round.
That way, we can consign conventions to the dust heap of history where they belong.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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