Let's Hear It for Contested Conventions

No matter which clown gets the crown, let him scrap for it.


I don't have a candidate in the Republican presidential race, but I do have an outcome to root for. It seems more and more likely that the GOP will begin its convention without a clear-cut nominee, and I hope that is in fact what happens. No matter which clown gets the crown, let him scrap for it in Cleveland.

There was a time when the whole point of a political convention was to select a candidate, but those days ended long ago. The last semi-serious attempt to derail a nominee's victory at a convention was in 1980, when Ted Kennedy tried to change the rules so delegates pledged to Jimmy Carter could vote for him instead. The last convention that began with any real uncertainty about who would win it was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were still battling over delegates as the confab started. The last convention that actually took multiple ballots to pick a winner was in 1952, way back at the beginning of the TV era, when the Democrats went through three rounds of voting before settling on Adlai Stevenson as their standard-bearer. (That was also the last time a major party picked a nominee who wasn't a declared candidate when the convention began.) Genuinely contested conventions continue to take place in the third-party realm—I've been to two of them—but not in the parties that most people pay attention to.

As the political importance of the conventions declined, they devolved into increasingly empty rituals, a quadrennial rite where the party papers over its members' differences and broadcasts an infomercial to the nation. By 2012, things had decayed to the point where a candidate who had not dropped out of the race and had dozens of delegates supporting him—Ron Paul—was barred from speaking to the convention unless he agreed to submit his remarks in advance and to endorse the nominee. (He refused.) We were a long way from the days when Eugene McCarthy could address the Democratic convention in August 1968 yet not get around to deciding he'd vote for the guy who beat him til late October.

I have no nostalgia for the practice of party bosses picking nominees in smoke-filled convention rooms; the best alternative to today's sorts of corruption and manipulation is not to return to the corruption and manipulation of yesteryear. But if we strip a party of the power to stage a completely choreographed spectacle, that just might inject some substance into the proceedings. At the very least, it would let the seams show. What a pleasure it would be to turn on the TV during convention week and see some actual unscripted disagreement.