Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book, “Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office,” will be released in September. This piece is adapted from his article on conventions in the Summer 2016 issue of National Affairs.
Political conventions were born because of technological limitations. They have been changing ever since as technology has evolved. Initially, and for much of our history, these changes have transpired in a way that favored leading candidates and party leaders; now, and increasingly in the years to come, they may empower underdogs and grass-roots activists.
Conventions began precisely because there was no alternative to face-to-face meetings. Party leaders could not communicate quickly or easily in an era of horse-delivered missives, so they needed a gathering place to make decisions, including who would serve as the nominee. The first national party convention was held by the long-departed Anti-Masonic Party in Baltimore in September 1831.
Then change came in the form of the telegraph. Abraham Lincoln did not attend the 1860 GOP convention but stayed in touch via telegraph. He used the device to instruct aides to “make no contracts that will bind me.”
But if communications advances once gave party leaders additional leverage for control, modern technology may be taking it from them. John F. Kennedy’s convention team used walkie-talkies in 1960, but only floor managers had them. Now, ubiquitous hand-held devices allow activists to compete with party-blessed candidates.
Similarly, social media offers insurgents and party favorites alike the ability not only to gauge support but also to reach out directly to delegates to make the case for a favored candidate or cause. The upshot is that smartphones and social media may very well exacerbate floor fights, as warring party factions use their ability to connect directly with delegates to try to lure candidates to their preferred positions.
With the introduction of radio, conventions began to evolve from smoke-filled rooms into public spectacles, as the parties gained the ability to broadcast messages directly to voters. This development accelerated a change in the fundamental purpose of conventions, from internal strategy meetings to advertising opportunities for a party and its candidate. In the 1920s, radio rendered old-style orators such as William Jennings Bryan obsolete, while elevating younger politicos such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who understood how to communicate via the new medium.
Television changed the game further by putting simultaneous pressure on party leaders to make decisions in an open manner and to provide a well-orchestrated spectacle. It was bad enough when fistfights broke out on the floor of the 1940 GOP convention in Philadelphia, the first to be televised. It was even worse in 1968, when riots in the streets surrounding the Democratic convention in Chicago were seen by millions of viewers watching at home.
If a candidate could secure a majority of delegates before the convention and “clinch” the nomination, he or she could enter the convention as the presumptive nominee and thus control all aspects of the convention, including the staging, speaker selection and platform committee. This approach has worked for the most part for the past 40 years, as parties adhered to the imperative to hold a smooth and confrontation-free convention — with a few notable exceptions.
But change is coming, or has already arrived. Cord-cutting, for example, is reducing the number of people watching cable television as young people obtain political news from other sources, including late-night comedy. In response, parties will have to use new technologies to design convention events that target specific viewing demographics.
At the same time, the communications revolution means that it is not only the party and the networks that determine which images will make it into Americans’ living rooms. As the public saw recently with the Periscope broadcasting of the Democrats’ sit-in on the House floor, those in charge no longer have the ability to choose what people see.
Another possible change is an evolution in the ways in which the politicians’ speeches themselves are evaluated. In the 2012 presidential debates, for example, the world learned via Twitter that Mitt Romney had “defeated” President Obama in the first encounter before the debate was even half-done. This year, social media reviews will shape the reception of speeches before talking heads or print journalists get a word in.
This phenomenon will intensify in the future. Real-time “fact checking” of speeches as they are given — with rebutting statements shown on the bottom of the screen as politicians talk — could also change the way in which voters take in speeches. The excitement over a great convention oration could be dissipated by on-screen debunking of the facts before the post-speech ovation even begins.
The evolution of conventions is far from over. As long as technology continues to evolve, conventions will as well.
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