Arguably, the national Democratic and Republican conventions have dramatically declined in importance since the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Hubert Humphrey managed to win the Democratic presidential nomination without winning a single state primary. The McGovern-Fraser commission was established following the 1968 debacle to democratize the convention delegate selection process. Reforms set in motion laws requiring state primary elections to select delegates rather than party leaders. Eventually the Republican Party followed suit. Today, the Republican and Democratic party conventions are an amalgamation of political theater, posturing, but also a competition for power among intra-party groups.
Although some doubt the relevance of the conventions, I would argue there is still something to be learned. One first has to recognize that political parties are not ideological monoliths, but rather an amalgamation of diverse interests and groups that don't always obviously go together. However, the only way for these different groups to get what they want is to win elections, and they can only win elections by forming coalitions.
Coalitions are difficult to maintain and different groups within the party compete for relative dominance. For instance, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks arguably have for a number of years been the dominant forces of the GOP. However, with the 2008 financial crisis and government's excessive and likely ineffective response, socially moderate steadfast fiscal conservatives and libertarians have emerged as a formidable force threatening to take the dominant lead in the Republican Party (at least for now).
Consequently, the Republican and Democratic conventions showcase the dynamic interplay between competing groups and ideologies within each party. Observing the respective strategic approaches the Romney and Obama campaigns take are indicative of how they are managing their internal party quarrels while also trying to appeal to the general public.
The individuals selected to speak at the convention, the order and timing of each speech, and each speeches' content will reveal a great deal about which political groups are likely winning the battle for internal dominance. Moreover, the response to the convention speakers will also reveal how the media and the public is responding to the dynamic interplay within parties to build coalitions while also catering to the general public.
Politico has a list of tonight's speakers scheduled to open the 2012 Republican National Convention; several deserve extra attention.
1) Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: Walker withstood a recall after taking on public sector unions to balance the state budget. Despite unions' impressive political power, funded by mandated membership dues, Walker kept the governorship indicating to political officials throughout the country that it's politically feasible to reform public sector unions. (Read here for Shikha Dalmia's clever description of Walker as a panicked accountant.)
2) Republican Texas Senate Candidate Ted Cruz: Although the Texas political establishment liked Cruz, they had chosen Lieut. Gov. David Dewhurst as their next Texas Senate candidate. However, former Solicitor General of Texas Ted Cruz had the support of grassroots tea party groups throughout the state which propelled Cruz into the primary run-off and to an unlikely yet dramatic win in July 2012.
3) South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: Haley also rode the Tea Party wave, but back in 2010. However, she has since angered many tea partiers and libertarians in the state. For this reason, her approach at the convention will be especially interesting.
4) Mrs. Ann Romney: The wife of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney for 43 years, many expect Ann Romney to help reveal the real Mitt Romney, to the extent possible in one speech.
5) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: entertaining, hard-hitting, and sometimes offensive. He says things that need to be said and other things that shouldn't, but does it regardless of others' expectations.