With the advent of television and the widespread adoption of primaries, the national parties' nominating conventions have largely been reduced from decision-making bodies to a rubber stamp function.  The conventions are, in fact, tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.   Nonetheless, these quadrennial gatherings still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties and can provide a boost for the nominee.

The Changing Character of Conventions

In the past, the national convention served as a decision-making body, actually determining the party's nominee.  For example, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots to select John Davis as the nominee.  The last Democratic Convention to go beyond one ballot occurred in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot; the 1948 Republican Convention went to a third ballot before New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey won the nomination.  Republicans had a close vote in 1976 in Kansas City when President Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan by 1,187 votes to 1,070 votes.

Two significant changes have occurred in recent decades.  First, most of the national convention delegates are now selected by voters in primary contests rather than by party caucuses and meetings.  Second, with the advent of television, conventions have become tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.  Each party seeks to present itself in the best possible light and to demonstrate a united front rather than to hash out its differences. 

(Additionally, in terms of timing, the most recent conventions have been held in late August and early September, whereas in past decades conventions in mid-July to mid-August were common.  With the earlier dates, planners had to take into account the Olympic Games, which in 2012 will be held in London from July 27-August 12.  In any event, later conventions make for a shorter fall campaign).

One could argue that modern day conventions are little more than four-day advertisements for the political parties.  Because there is no longer much suspense, conventions have suffered declining viewership, coverage by the major networks has been cut, and some observers have suggested that the conventions themselves should be cut to three days.

The conventions may have been reduced to rubber stamps, but they still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties.  In many ways, the essence of a convention is what happens off of the convention floor.  In the lead-up to the convention, the drafting of the party platform provides interests aligned with the party a forum to present their concerns.  During the days of the convention itself, hundreds of events, caucuses, receptions, breakfasts, fundraisers, and parties take place in the hotels surrounding the convention hall.  At the end of the convention, party activists return to their communities energized for the fall campaign and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a "convention bounce."

Both parties conduct lengthy site selection processes to determine which cities will host their conventions.  Republicans selected Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL after also considering Phoenix, AZ and Salt Lake City, UT.  Democrats selected Charlotte, NC after also considering Cleveland, OH, Minneapolis, MN, and St. Louis, MO.


Once the host city has been selected, the convention committee starts work on the details of how to meet housing, transportation, security needs of more than 40,000 people.  (Republicans have a Committee on Arrangements and Democrats have a Democratic National Convention Committee).  The major party conventions are funded in part by grants from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the $3 income tax check-off).  The grants, set out in the Federal Election Campaign Act, started at $2.2 million back in 1976 and were increased a couple of times in addition to being adjusted for cost-of-living increases.  To prepare their 2012 conventions, the Democrats and Republicans each received grants of about $17.7 million from the Treasury (+).  In addition the host cities of Tampa and Charlotte each received $50 million federal grants for security (+).

Recent Democratic and Republican conventions have been designated as National Special Security Events, meaning that the U.S. Secret Service takes the lead role in assuring the safety and security of convention-goers.  The effort is complex and involves months of planning and dozens of entities and agencies.

As important as the party convention committees are host committees.  [11 CFR 9008.52].  These non-partisan, non-profit committees fulfill a range of functions.  Early on they promote the city's bid.  If the city is successful, the host committee sets to work raising money and in-kind contributions, recruiting volunteers and organizing events and activities to welcome delegates and media.  Corporate contributions to host committees and "municipal funds" have comprised an increasing share of spending on conventions, leading for some to call for stricter regulations.  The Campaign Finance Institute has argued that "policies of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Federal Election Commission (FEC) on 'host committee' fundraising are seriously outmoded" and provide a loophole for tens of millions of dollars of "soft money contributions to party-produced extravaganzas." 

The 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee reported contributions of $55.6 million; these included 19 contributions of $1 million or more topped by $5 million from Las Vegas Sands Corp. CEO Sheldon Adelson, $3 million from local Marketing Solution Publications and $2 million from the America Petroleum Institute.  The committee made disbursements of $53.2 million. 

The Charlotte DNC Host Committee had a more difficult task because it agreed to somewhat restrictive rules on contributions; it raised contributions totaling only $24.5 million (including an in-kind total of $1.3 million from Duke Energy Corporation, and $500,000 contributions from the SEIU and from the Fred Eychaner Charitable Fund); the committee thus took on $13.0 million in loans.  The committee made disbursements of $32.9 million. [FEC: Tampa | Charlotte]

Party Platforms

The platform outlines the party's philosophy and priorities and is prepared in advance of the convention.  Truth be told, party platforms are not widely read documents, but the process of writing a platform affords the party the opportunity to publicly seek input from its various constituencies.  During platform discussions some points of contention do arise, such as the Republican Party's quadrennial battle over its abortion plank, but generally any major dissension is ironed out before the platform reaches the convention.

Interest Groups

Interest groups work on many different levels.  Before the convention starts, interest groups weigh in on the party platform.  During the convention, groups organize receptions, forums, caucuses and meetings; some set up hospitality suites.  Also on hand at the convention is the opposing party, which generally sets up a communications shop and provides daily briefings and rapid response for reporters.  With thousands of media representatives on hand, many groups mobilize and try to get out their messages to a broader audience.  There are ad campaigns, special events and other creative efforts, and some groups take to the streets.


Conventions have long attracted an assortment of demonstrators.  One need only recall Chicago in 1968.  Nowadays convention planners provide specially designated protest areas near the convention halls as venues for various groups to make their points, but these are caged in and may not be accessible to convention attendees, so the action has tended to occur on the streets.  Most protesters are peaceful, but there are always a few troublemakers with destructive intentions.  In 2000 coordinated mobilizations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the conventions drew thousands of activists advocating a range of progressive issues; these necessitated major police presences.  Shadow Conventions were also held in the two cities.  In 2004 demonstrators did not have much of an impact in Boston, but activists opposed to Bush held sizable protests in New York.  In 2008 Denver saw a range of relatively low-key demonstrations, while the protests in Minneapolis-St. Paul did lead to hundreds of arrests.  The peace group Code Pink even managed to get a few protesters inside the Xcel Center.  In 2012 in Tampa a big march occurred on Aug. 27, and other protests were coordinated under the resistRNC banner.  Despite concerns, there were only two arrests, and delegates did not see much of the protesters.  In Charlotte some protests were coordinated by the Coalition to March on Wall Street South.

Atmosphere and Dynamics

Each convention city and venue poses a unique set of challenges and creates a distinctive atmosphere.  Heading into the convention, the soon-to-be formally nominated candidate announces his (or her) vice presidential running mate and generally does some kind of tour hitting key states.  Delegates arrive and activity begins.  Being a delegate is an exhilarating but exhausting experience.  A successful convention energizes attendees and activists, gets the message out to the broader public, and sends the ticket into the fall campaign with the convention bounce.

In 2008 the first day of the Republican Convention was cancelled due to Hurricane Gustav, and in 2012 the weather intervened again.  Tropical Storm Isaac threatened to hit Tampa, and while it ultimately edged away to the West, planners cancelled the program for Monday.  This meant that four days of speakers had to be rearranged into three days.  Republicans achieved a generally successful convention (+), although the rare unscripted moment of actor Clint Eastwood talking to a chair will linger in many people's memories.  Democrats had been hyping a big closing night at Bank of America Stadium, but on Sept. 4, 2012 they announced a move to Time Warner Cable Arena due to severe weather forecasts.  Republicans said the move was because Democrats had not been able to get enough participants to fill the stadium; convention planners rejected the charge, but the change did put a bit of a damper on the Democrats' big show.  On Thursday night the rain did not materialize. 

Economic Impact

Despite the infrastructure demands and security challenges, hosting a convention can provide a substantial economic boost to a city.  A pre-convention analysis by Jones Lang LaSalle put the total economic impact of the Republican Convention on Tampa conservatively at $153.56 million (+)  The Tampa Bay Host Committee said in a post-convention release that the convention's "economic impact to the area is expected to be worth $175 to 200 million," but the Tropical Storm Isaac may have dampened that, and some local businesses reported less activity than expected.  A Jan. 2013 report on the Democratic Convention in Charlottee prepared by Tourism Economics found, "$91 million in direct convention-related spending plus $72.6 million in indirect and induced spending, resulting in a total net impact of $163.6 million in increased gross output, also called business sales." [PDF]

Third Party Conventions

While the big networks have been giving less coverage to major party conventions in recent years, they generally have ignored third party conventions altogether.  Fortunately C-SPAN does cover these gatherings, as they provide one of the best opportunities to learn about ideas and viewpoints beyond those of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Sites of Recent Major Party Conventions

Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL Aug. 27-30 Charlotte, NC  Sept. 4-6
2008 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN Sept. 1-4 Denver, CO  Aug. 25-28
2004 New York, NY  Aug. 30-Sept. 2 Boston, MA  July 26-29
2000 Philadelphia, PA  July 31-Aug. 3 Los Angeles, CA  Aug. 14-17
1996 San Diego, CA  Aug 12-15 Chicago, IL  Aug. 26-29
1992 Houston, TX  Aug. 17-20 New York, NY  July 13-16
1988 New Orleans, LA  Aug. 15-18 Atlanta, GA  July 18-21
1984 Dallas, TX San Francisco, CA
1980 Detroit, MI New York, NY
1976 Kansas City, MO New York, NY
1972 Miami Beach, FL Miami Beach, FL
1968 Miami Beach, FL Chicago, IL
1964 San Francisco, CA Atlantic City, NJ
1960 Chicago, IL Los Angeles, CA

Aug. 27-30, 2012 - Republican National Convention in Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL.


Sept. 4-6, 2012 - Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC.

April 18-21, 2012 - Nashville, TN.

May 4-6, 2012 - Las Vegas, NV.


July 12-15, 2012 - Baltimore, MD.

June 2012 - online.failed

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