WASHINGTON – Long gone are the passionate debates. Long gone is the suspense about who will emerge as the party's presidential nominee. Political conventions now are carefully scripted pep rallies aimed at a national TV audience.
Not since the 1970s, in fact, has the nation had a major-party national convention begin with the nominee in doubt. Americans already know how the story will end at this year's Republican and Democratic national gatherings. So have modern-day conventions become irrelevant?
For the parties, conventions are colossally significant events – opportunities to claim precious hours of free prime-time television and showcase their nominees to millions. They preview the fall campaigns that are commencing and give the parties a chance to promote unity and excitement.
“Conventions have become more of a launch pad for the presidential campaign,” says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University and author of the book “The Road to the White House.” “They excite the people. They excite the party base.”
For everyday Americans, maybe not.
Plenty of people aren't focused in the waning days of summer on politics, government and the direction of the country. “People tune in for the final speech,” says Wayne.
And for many, that's about it.
Nielsen ratings show about 22 million people watched the first full-coverage nights of the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions, which featured speeches by Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut for the GOP and by Michelle Obama and ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts for the Democrats. The Republicans' opening session in St. Paul, Minn., was scaled back sharply as attention and concern focused on Hurricane Gustav's threat to the New Orleans area.
On the final nights of the conventions, about 38 million people tuned in for the nomination acceptance speeches of Barack Obama and John McCain – slightly more than the 35 million viewers who watched as the Summer Olympic Games opened in Beijing a few weeks earlier.
Modern-day conventions, spanning three to four days, feature speeches, votes on rules and debates over the issues to be presented in the party's platform – where the party stands on taxes, terrorism, abortion, immigration and other issues. They also can help to launch up-and-comers – like a little-known senate candidate named Barack Obama, who was chosen to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention.
No doubt the keynotes this time around should generate interest. For the GOP, the sometimes-combative governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has been tapped to take the high-profile spot in Tampa, Fla. For the Democrats, San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro will take the stage in Charlotte, N.C. – the first Hispanic keynote speaker at a Democratic convention.
While the keynotes and other speeches by party stars attract headlines, conventions these days don't make the kind of news they did in decades past.
In 1924, a bitter struggle between the Democratic Party's urban and rural factions led to the longest convention in American history – spanning 17 days and more than 100 rounds of voting before John W. Davis of West Virginia received enough votes for nomination.
“Once upon a time, there was a lot of drama,” says political science professor Tom Cronin at Colorado College. “Would John Kennedy get over the top? Would Adlai Stevenson open up the convention to a vote for a vice president?”
Stevenson easily won the Democratic nomination at the 1956 convention but decided in an unusual move to leave the choice of his running mate to delegates at the convention. They chose Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.
In 1960, presidential primaries played a bigger role, putting Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts, on the verge of a nominating majority after winning the primaries he entered. At the Democratic convention, Kennedy won on the first ballot, knocking back challenges from Stevenson and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.
Reforms followed the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where widespread anger over Vietnam sparked chaos on the streets and party divisions flared inside the hall. There were changes in the way delegates were chosen, and more power was given to voters in state primaries and caucuses, cementing a shift toward today's conventions that are more like coronations of the nominees than determining factors in selecting them.
But that doesn't make conventions irrelevant, argues Cronin.
“They've been repurposed in the sense that they now concentrate on things like the platform, the vice president ratification ceremonies, and, most predictably, both parties try to exploit them for publicity purposes,” he said.
At the Republican convention in 2008, McCain sought to capitalize on his surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president, making her the first woman on a national Republican ticket.
McCain announced his choice for running mate the Friday before the GOP convention and the day after the Democratic convention ended. Some 37 million people tuned in the night of Palin's speech to the convention – almost as many as watched McCain on the final night.
Before that, the 1988 GOP convention opened with suspense about George H.W. Bush's choice for the No. 2 spot. Bush surprised delegates with his selection of Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana.
Cronin says the convention focus this year will be unity – a “tall order” for Republicans following a primary season with a crowded field and deeply splintered party.
“There are people who are angry in both parties,” he said. “Romney's job is to unify the disparate forces of all the candidates who ran against him.”
For Obama: “His job at the convention is to make it a 'choice' election and not a referendum” on how well his policies have worked.