Darn those political party conventions

Wednesday night, the Democrats officially nominated Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as their presidential candidate.

In fitting form, Obama’s chief rival, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, ended the roll-call vote prematurely with a dramatic call from the floor for the party to unanimously endorse Obama by acclamation.  Later, former President Bill Clinton delivered an applause-filled speech on behalf of Obama and convention delegates confirmed Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., as the party’s vice-presidential nominee. Topping off the evening,  Obama made a surprise visit to the stage to praise his new partner; his wife, Michelle; his former rival, Hillary Clinton; and her husband.

Next week, the Republican Party is expected to nominate Sen. John McCain of Arizona as its candidate. No doubt, there will be excitement over McCain’s choice for his vice-presidential running mate. That announcement may come as early as tonight as the Republicans work to shift the nation’s attention from the Democratic presidential nominee to their own.

Much has been, and will be made, of the news coverage devoted to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions this week and next. I covered three of them as a working journalist in 1988 (R), 1992 (D) and 2000 (D). Each convention brought some form of change to the U.S. political process.

Democratic National Convention Committee

The Democratic National Convention in Denver, CO. Photo: Democratic National Convention Committee

Critics say Obama and McCain have already sewn-up their party nominations, so there will be little real news to report. Columnist Marcia Mercer refers to it as the “quadrennial whine…You’ve heard it: The conventions are a big waste of time and money. They don’t pick the presidential nominees, and platform battles are rare. They’re orchestrated shows or, worse, infomercials.”

Why bother? Who really cares?

It’s true. Political conventions have changed over the decades. In the past, presidential nominations were often unresolved. Suspense hung in the air until party delegates, power brokers and nominees themselves hashed it out on the convention floor and behind closed doors.

My first memories of the process began when I was 5-years-old. It was 1960. In Los Angeles, the Democratic National Convention opened with John Kennedy still facing challenges from Lyndon Johnson, powerful senate majority leader from Texas, and Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential nominee from 1952 and 1956.

Library of Congress

Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, California, July, 1960 Photo: Library of Congress

My father was a history professor who specialized in the American presidency. I drifted into sleep on those sweltering summer nights in Kansas listening to the impassioned voices of the Democratic candidates, convention speakers and delegates. They poured from our family’s black and white TV. My mother was an avowed Democrat. My father was a Republican centrist. Both sat glued, watching the drama play.

JFK Library

John F. Kennedy arrives at the Democratic National Convention on July 9, 1960 held in the Sports Arena in Los Angeles, California Photo: JFK Library

Kennedy did win his party’s nomination on the first ballot. He than made the surprise pick of Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate and his campaign against Republican nominee charged ahead. When the 1960 Democratic National Convention opened though that year, Kennedy’s nomination was not assured. ( An insider’s view )

In 1976, I was 20-years-old when the Republican’s held their national convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Incumbent President Gerald Ford only won his party’s nomination after fending off a strong challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Tempers ran hot. The convention and the candidates were emotionally charged.

University of Texas

President Gerald Ford, as the Republican nominee, shakes hands with nomination foe Ronald Reagan on the closing night of the 1976 Republican National Convention. Vice-Presidential Candidate Bob Dole is on the far left, then Nancy Reagan, Governor Ronald Reagan is at the center shaking hands with President Gerald Ford, Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller is just to the right of Ford, followed by Susan Ford and First Lady Betty Ford. Photo: University of Texas

Ford had more primary delegates than Reagan, but didn’t have enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination. Ford and Reagan arrived in Kansas City before the convention opened and worked feverishly to win over the uncommitted delegates to secure the nomination.

Ford ultimately used the perks of the Presidency to win over many wavering delegates, but his nomination was no guarantee when the convention opened. ( An insider’s view )

As they had 16 years before, my mother, the avowed Democrat, and my centrist Republican father sat glued to the drama. This time they watched on our new color TV. I sat there too, transfixed by the ultimate political reality show.

Which brings us to this week and next. It’s true, the party convention’s presidential nominees have been in place for months.

There are other events and issues worth the attention of voters and news media.

When Barack Obama formally accepts his party’s nomination tomorrow night, he’ll greet a capacity audience of 70,000 at Invesco Field. As he does, many new things will unfold besides the aerial camera hovering, for the first time, above the stadium turf.

Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama (l) and Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain.

Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama (l) and Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain.

The American electorate is in flux. It’s looking for reasons to back Obama or McCain this November. Voters are quite interested in what’s happening in this election.

The process is more relevant and filled with passion in these times of war, economic decline and social distress. Political momentum can be gained or lost. America can move forward or fall behind.

History is already in play. An African-American is a mainstream party’s presidential nominee for the first time. Win or lose, America’s racial motives will be debated for decades after Obama succeeds or fails in his presidential bid.

One new, growing force are the thousands of bloggers who are or will attend both party conventions. They are writing in assorted ways, from tremendously varied perspectives, describing what’s taking place and who says what. Bloggers are helping shape public opinion in new, perhaps still unseen, ways this election season.

Forty years ago, the mainstream news media focused its reporting microscope on the conventions. This year, with thousands of news bloggers in tow, the conventions will be covered more widely than ever and with more frequency. Convention bloggers will be read, seen and heard by Internet audiences spread across America and around the globe.

New splits are also taking place in traditional media.

In TV Week, Michele Grippi describes the huge cable TV audience ratings for the Democratic National Convention. According to Nielsen ratings, CNN was the biggest draw of the DNC’s opening night with an average of 3.7 million viewers, up 85 percent from its 2004 DNC opening night audience. Fox News Channel averaged slightly more than 3 million viewers for the night, up 84 percent from 2004. MSNBC had slightly more than 2.1 million viewers, up 88 percent from opening night 2004.

Meanwhile, the broadcast networks, which each dedicated one hour to the convention, drew smaller audiences than they did four years ago. ABC, CBS and NBC together brought in 12.1 million viewers in the 10 p.m. hour, down a combined one million from 2004, according to preliminary nationals.

Republican National Convention Committee

A rendering of the podium at the 2008 Republican National Convention. It will be held September 1-4 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN. Photo: Republican National Convention Committee

Political conventions give high profile visibility to the candidates. It’s the ultimate party showcase.

Issues, philosophies and credibility, plus or minus, are doled out as the Republicans and Democrats vie to win the hearts and minds of undecided U.S. voters who are looking for a cause and candidate behind which they can rally. Conventions themselves are important rally points. They bring party members together, giving some the opportunity to bury the animosity bred by long months of campaign trail warfare. Nothing heals political wounds faster than sharing in political victory.

The Republican and Democratic parties are with the times when it comes to getting their messages out. This year, the Democrats and Republicans have their own Facebook national convention pages (Pssst! The Republicans are doing a better job here) and RSS convention blog feeds. When Barack Obama announced he was going to release the name of his vice presidential pick via text message, Nielsen research said 2.9 million people received the text, even though the mainstream media announced Joe Biden’s name well before it was even sent. The Los Angeles Times Web Scout gives you the complete convention technology rundown.

Political conventions play an important role in the U.S. political process. Like most things though, they have evolved over time.

The most important questions may be these; Will American voters take away new knowledge from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions? Will this information help them cast votes in November that will take our country to a better place tomorrow than the place it’s in today?

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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