We are in national political convention season, a strange time where fifteen thousand media, political insiders, and protesters descend on two different cities without any formal reason for doing so. Delegates aren’t going to choose anything of substance – the party platforms are irrelevant and the candidates are selected beforehand. There’s no news being made, except for gaffes or something silly like that. The speeches are not particularly interesting. In fact, what these conventions are, more than anything else, are trade shows. Specifically, they are trade shows for the political class. The Democrats have said they will not fund their convention with corporate money, which is like trying to take the sex out of porn. Adorable. Not gonna happen.
Here are five purposes of these national political conventions.
Messaging - What most people – the TV audience – get out of a political convention is a framed message. This is delivered through a set of speakers, primarily the keynote the night before the nomination and the speech of the candidate himself. In 2004, the Republicans had Zell Miller give a nasty barnburner, and then George W. Bush delivered a softer speech in which he used gentler rhetoric designed to appeal to a larger audience. The Democrats chose Barack Obama, who gave a now-legendary speech, and then John Kerry gave a speech to accept the nomination. While the 2004 convention launched Obama’s national political career, the GOP did a better job using their convention to win the election. The Republicans’ problem in 2004 was with independent women. Bush’s use of terms like “flex time” during the big speech successfully began closing this gap, along with an initiative launched at that convention called “W is for Women”. The night before the nomination was a time when mostly partisans would watch, so the GOP used Miller as a way to fire up their base. The Democrats, by contrast, emphasized Kerry’s military service, and helped build Obama’s brand, neither of which helped in the final outcome of the election.
The 2012 race is both nasty and empty of substance. The Democrats are going to be delivering a populist message from Bank of America-land, while the Republicans will continue to deliver their strange ode to plutocracy and the virtues of capital.
Parties – Every four years, there’s the inevitable set of stories that come out about how sex workers in convention cities are excited for the boost in business. People chortle at the so-called hypocrisy of this, but it actually just speaks to the mundanity of what’s going on. A national political convention is like any big national event, it’s just a lot of powerful and wealthy people coming together to engage in business and leisure. So there are parties, lots and lots of parties. Most of them aren’t fun, they are miserable corporate affairs with various levels of food and entertainment quality. Much of the challenge is getting into the “right” parties, which is awful as it sounds. This is where lobbyists flourish, able to procure entrances to parties and credentials. Most major corporate lobbies – from banks to telecom to banks to energy to banks – host events, breakfasts, brunches, parties, etc.
Fundraisers – Not surprisingly, candidates from all over the country host fundraisers with insiders from all over the country. Most of the competitive primaries are at this point over, so you have lots of candidates who are trying to replenish their coffers. It’s a great opportunity for, say a first-time Florida or Nevada or Idaho Congressional candidate, to meet union or corporate leaders, lobbyists, White House or ex-White House officials, party committee leaders, sitting politicians, journalists, pollsters, policymakers, and activists. You get some cash, sure, but you make valuable connections that you can leverage later on if your race becomes competitive.
Training sessions - A good number of the delegates are sweet and good natured political activists who get the delegate slot as a reward for a job well done, volunteering, fundraising, just being a good member of the establishment. They are hobbyists, mostly, and strivers. There are a lot of training sessions for how to run campaigns, how to message, how to fundraise, and most importantly, how to help your candidate get elected. I imagine SuperPAC-style organizations will be present sponsoring trainings.
Protests and Security – Perhaps the most interesting part of a national political convention are the protesters and security forces, which together form a symbiotic relationship of arrests and attention. Local police forces get a candy hand-out from Federal coffers in the form of counter-terrorism money, and lots of national security apparatus is around as well. A convention is a great time for law enforcement to buy the newest and coolest toys in crowd control, and in order to do that it’s important to have threats. It’s not that there aren’t real threats, but there is a big incentive to portray anything as a threat. You’ll usually see the FBI or local police cracking down on animal rights activists or some other non-threat, with the usual excuses for harassment. The media is important in this, in that security forces want to make sure that protests are far more threatening than they are, and the press complies. At the 2008 RNC Convention, police arrested Amy Goodman, for no reason. The Youtube clip of her being arrested got over 1 million views, but it was ignored by the media and by both Democrat and Republican elites.
This year, I’d watch for a couple of things. First, will Occupy make an appearance? Last fall, protesters were able to make inequality a political issue, forcing politicians to address the question rhetorically, if not substantively. Some operational mistakes, but more importantly, the use of paramilitary forces to break up the protest camps, have sapped the urgency of the protests to the political establishment. There are now splits within the Occupy movement, with different groups taking away different lessons. With a fairly significant media stage, what will happen, if anything? Two, media insiders understand that the national convention format is a prop designed to force feed messaging to the public. This is not new, but what is new is the cynicism of the public towards the Presidential race. It’s the first set of national conventions since the bailouts, and these events are being held as the political class is held in low esteem. How will the press approach this dynamic?
Anyway, this format of politics is not going to be around for much longer. It’s boring, expensive, and increasingly irrelevant to the electoral process, such as it is. So to those at the conventions, have fun. Enjoy the game of swapping credentials, and/or enjoy the protests. And spend some money at a local establishment, so someone not in politics benefits.