Making sense of today’s political conventions

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News at Northeastern

With the Repub­lican National Con­ven­tion set to begin on Monday in Cleve­land, we spoke with North­eastern pro­fessor William Crotty about what actu­ally hap­pens at polit­ical con­ven­tions and the evolving role these con­ven­tions have played in pres­i­den­tial elections.

Crotty, the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Chair in Public Life and emer­itus pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence, was involved in rewriting the con­ven­tion rules in the late 1960s and early ’70s and is writing a book on the 2016 elec­tion, titled Win­ning the Pres­i­dency 2016.

In basic terms, what hap­pens at a polit­ical convention?

The con­ven­tions are the one national meeting of each polit­ical party. Their basic pur­pose is to choose a pres­i­den­tial nom­inee and vice pres­i­den­tial nom­inee. Long ago, these used to be for­mi­dable affairs in which the dif­ferent fac­tions in the party met and fought through the choice of a nom­inee. Curi­ously, in both par­ties there is a con­tin­uing divi­sion between the mod­erate or cen­trist ele­ments in the party and their can­di­dates, and between the more hard­core ide­o­log­ical groups and their candidates.

You men­tioned a “con­tin­uing divi­sion.” How is that playing out in this election?

This year there was a clear divi­sion between Hillary Clinton—pragmatic, expe­ri­enced, sym­pa­thetic to Wall Street with a strong record on women and children’s issues—and Bernie Sanders, rep­re­senting a more lib­eral ele­ment that forced Clinton left on trade policy, workers’ rights, eco­nomic inequality, and col­lege costs. Clinton would have been and is com­fort­able with party leaders and fundraisers. Sanders rep­re­sented the group more intent on opening the party and empow­ering par­tic­i­pants in the process. Sanders him­self is not, nor has he ever been, con­cerned with party mat­ters. His call for a polit­ical rev­o­lu­tion fits the atti­tu­dinal struc­ture of the reformers.

It is hard to say what exactly Donald Trump rep­re­sents given his unpre­dictable cam­paign, per­sonal attacks on other can­di­dates, and changing posi­tions. Clearly what he has been trying to do is to solidify a more main­stream con­ser­v­a­tive base in the party and cut off any attempt at a divided con­ven­tion. His choice of Gov­ernor Mike Pence of Indiana is an indi­ca­tion of this. What Trump is not is Ted Cruz and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the “Far Right” evan­gel­ical base of the party, although the fact that Cruz has been invited to speak at the con­ven­tion indi­cates Trump is not iso­lating him­self from these party members.

Trump has been called a pop­ulist and a lot of other things, although how it all plays out beyond a nasty and unusu­ally inten­sive per­sonal cam­paign is hard to say. It is a new expe­ri­ence for the country and for the Repub­lican Party and may well indi­cate a party in tran­si­tion, one that has bank­rupted its Reagan neo-liberal ideology.

How have con­ven­tions evolved and what is the pri­mary pur­pose of today’s conventions?

National con­ven­tions used to be the center of the party and polit­ical uni­verse. While obvi­ously crit­ical in dic­tating the future path the country was to follow, that is no longer the case. They were not planned but evolved out of neces­sity in the 1830s and 1840s. Unfor­tu­nately, as the gen­er­a­tions passed they became totally cor­rupted, serving the inter­ests of wealthy indus­tri­al­ists and party bosses.

A direct democ­racy emphasis on intro­ducing pri­maries to let the people or at least the party mem­bers decide began in the early 20th cen­tury. Little changed how­ever. The pri­maries were used to test the appeal of selected candidates—John F. Kennedy in Wis­consin and West Vir­ginia in 1960—to impress party leaders who still con­trolled the con­ven­tions. The del­e­gates selected were not bound to sup­port the pri­mary winner.

All this changed in some­thing of a rev­o­lu­tion coming out of the ’60s and the anti-war fervor and the civil rights move­ment. Blacks were excluded from national con­ven­tion del­e­ga­tions in the South, a problem for the national Demo­c­ratic Party (but not the Repub­lican Party) in the 1964 con­ven­tion. The res­o­lu­tion after the vio­lent Chicago con­ven­tion of 1968 was to create a reform com­mis­sion to open the party to all mem­bers and give them a voice in directly selecting the pres­i­den­tial nom­inee. The answer was to change the rules and make del­e­gates select the nominee.

I was part of the process during the years for 1968 to 1972. It was extremely con­tro­ver­sial. The powers within the party—the fun­ders of elec­tions, gov­er­nors, mayors, mem­bers of Con­gress, and the labor unions—fought the changes and the media attacked them for over a decade. A con­ces­sion was made in time that allowed party fig­ures and elected offi­cials to attend the con­ven­tion without having to run in primaries—the Super Del­e­gates that were a point of con­tention between Clinton and Sanders.

At present, in both par­ties, the elected del­e­gates in the pri­maries and cau­cuses are pledged to vote for the winner for one to three ballots.

Who attends today’s polit­ical con­ven­tions, and what roles do they play? 

The elected del­e­gates attend the con­ven­tions, plus approx­i­mately 650 Super Del­e­gates. They tend to be party activists who have worked in the cam­paigns of the can­di­dates they sup­port. Their vote for a nom­inee is obvi­ously predictable.

They also, how­ever, must put together a plat­form. This changes some each elec­tion depending on the can­di­date but for the most part there is a strong con­ti­nuity in both par­ties over the years on issue positions.

The par­ties do differ in their agendas and, in fact, are highly polar­ized in the present and con­sid­er­ably more polar­ized than they have been in the past. Sup­porters of the win­ning nom­inee have the greatest voice in deciding issue posi­tions. The plat­forms are not manda­tory for the can­di­dates; there is no way to force them to act. Still, and maybe sur­pris­ingly, they go a long way in deciding the party posi­tions in the cam­paign and, once in office, pres­i­dents do attempt to enact them.

The con­ven­tion also decides party rules. These can change each elec­tion. For example, after a cer­tain date in March, the Repub­li­cans switched from pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the pri­mary vote to winner-take-all. The intent was to decide on a nom­inee ear­lier than, for example, 2012 and avoid the blood­let­ting that Mitt Romney went through in the southern states. It back­fired. A move­ment against Donald Trump’s poten­tial nom­i­na­tion had begun but given the changes, the advan­tage went to him.

If there were a cre­den­tials chal­lenge to delegates—the 1964 Mis­sis­sippi Freedom Party’s chal­lenge to the all-white del­e­ga­tion from that state as an example—the cre­den­tials com­mittee would decide it.

How involved have this year’s can­di­dates been in forming the plat­forms of their parties?

In 2016 Clinton is taking a direct role in forming the plat­form and, as agreed, has made con­ces­sions to the Sanders cam­paign. This makes for a uni­fied party in what could be an elec­tion like no other.

Trump, in con­trast, has not involved him­self in the plat­form debates, allowing, in par­tic­ular, the more con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments of the party to make their points. Given the race to date, it is unlikely that Trump would feel bound to the pledges.

The 2016 elec­tion gives every promise of being an extra­or­di­nary elec­tion. It is an elec­tion year like no other.

(This article is reprinted with permission from News at Northeastern.)


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