Conventions really seem like pointless affairs in modern politics. Has any voter in the 21st century ever been convinced by a convention speech? Have conventions ever meaningfully moved polling in any direction for more than a few weeks? And will anyone in October remember anything that happened at conventions that took place in August?
Probably not. And all of this was true before the pandemic era, where conventions bear even less of a resemblance to their rough-and-tumble ancestors. Instead of delegates gathering in an arena in a swing state, much of the convention programming has moved online. Democratic nominee Joe Biden gave his acceptance speech live to a mostly-empty hall, and many other speeches were pre-recorded. The same will be true for some, though not all, of the Republican convention this week.
What began long ago as the only way for political parties in this country to choose nominees for president have degenerated into something that now feels like a weeklong infomercial.
In the old days, primaries, when they happened, were more of a way for candidates to build support for the convention fight. Now primaries are the contest, with the convention being a vestigial afterthought to anoint the nominee and try to unify the party. The bitter fight over superdelegates to the Democratic convention in 2016 highlighted one of the last remnants of the days of party bosses and smoke-filled rooms.
Connecticut’s conventions play a different role than national ones, because our conventions happen before the primary vote instead of after it. This makes them way more interesting, but being endorsed by the party convention doesn’t seem to carry that much weight with primary voters. By the time primaries happen months later, the conventions are long forgotten.
For instance, I was at the 2006 Democratic convention at the old Expo Center when Dan Malloy managed to convince enough delegates to switch their votes on the second ballot to grab the endorsement from New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. It was exciting stuff, and the first chance I had to cover a political convention. DeStefano brought a marching band to the thing! Maybe that was what cost him, who knows? But voters paid the endorsement no attention, and DeStefano comfortably won the nomination in August. DeStefano would go on to be annihilated by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in the general election, while an undaunted Malloy resurfaced four years later to win in 2010.
At the same convention, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman easily won the party endorsement over upstart anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. Lamont, though, outperformed expectations by getting over 15% of the vote, automatically qualifying him for the primary. At the conclusion of the vote, the noise from the Lamont backers would have you thinking they’d won the thing. In some sense, they had. Democratic primary voters would choose him in August, forcing Lieberman to run as an independent.
In both cases, voters reversed the results of the convention. But the actual event did give Malloy a chance to show his canny political skills, and Lamont a chance to break into politics by grabbing the 15% of the vote necessary to automatically qualify for the primary. And while neither man won the office he was seeking at the time, they’d go on to dominate Connecticut politics for a decade.
The national conventions obviously don’t have the same drama, but they do show us something else: who the parties and the candidates are. Sometimes the national conventions can launch careers: Barack Obama’s stirring speech at the 2004 convention catapulted him to the presidency four years later.
This year, the Democrats ran an earnest, safe, overtly inclusive, and ultimately hopeful program. They didn’t pay a ton of attention to the progressive wing of the party as they tried to appeal to the suburban voters who delivered for the party in 2018. Joe Biden, although being the nominee, often seemed happy to yield the spotlight and the microphone to others.
The Republican convention figures to be the opposite. Every single night will feature Donald Trump, and the convention will obviously be much more about him, his family, his particular brand of grievance-based politics, and firing up his base. So while the Democratic convention looked a lot like Biden, expect the Republican one to look like Trump.
In the long run, it won’t make much of a difference. But it should be a reminder of the axiom that whenever someone tells you who they are, it’s wise to listen.
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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