Well, here we are again, folks: We’re at that point in the political calendar where pundits, politicians and prognosticators alike all try to convince the American public that yes, the quadrennial presidential nominating conventions actually do matter. The fact of the matter is that although we carry on with these archaic traditions every four years, they rarely make much of a difference in either that specific cycle or even to national politics as a whole. Don’t believe that? In that case, think of the last major event you can remember happening at any convention in either party.

Probably the first thing that came to your mind is Barack Obama’s keynote speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The conventional wisdom is that it was largely that speech that catapulted him onto the national stage, but in fact, he was already a U.S. Senate candidate. He was already gaining prominence within the national Democratic Party, since his election to the Senate was all but guaranteed. He was even already being discussed as a possible future presidential candidate; All of this attention was a big part of the reason he was chosen to give the keynote speech in the first place. While the speech was well received, it didn’t do much (if anything) to help the nominee that year, John Kerry, who lost to George W. Bush.

Theoretically, the quadrennial conventions exist for two specific legal reasons: to conduct regular party business, as required by their bylaws, and to select someone as their presidential nominee. This is a nice theory, but in reality the conventions don’t really choose the nominee any more, and they haven’t for some time. The nominees of both parties are really chosen through the primary process. The convention merely formalizes that choice, and there hasn’t been a contest beyond the first ballot in either party since 1952. With both parties moving further away from caucuses and superdelegates, the chance of a brokered convention are decreasing every year.

In terms of party business, the biggest item on the agenda is always the party platform. While some activists on both the left and the right are thrilled by the thought of platform fights, in truth platforms are hardly even necessary for political parties these days. They were more vital in the days before easy, mass communication and transportation, when it was difficult for voters to learn about candidates’ stances on the issues. Now, presidential candidates not only campaign around the country (at least, in most years), but they also have extensive websites that detail their specific policy positions. Since the committees that write platforms are largely stacked with supporters of the nominee, there’s unlikely to be much in there he disagrees with – but if there is, he can just say so himself.

For a great example of how little platforms matter, we need only rewind to 2010. Conservative activists took over the Maine Republican Convention and passed their own platform. Moderates within the state Republican Party were shocked and appalled: They were convinced that the changes would hurt them in November. Conservatives were overjoyed, convinced that they had secured a major victory. In fact, both were wrong: Republicans scored a sweeping victory in Maine in November 2010, but they didn’t exactly go about enacting the party platform word for word. Instead, like most elected officials all over the country, they voted how they wanted on individual issues. This year, at the national level, Republicans didn’t even bother to write a new platform, deciding to just maintain the 2016 version as is.

So, if we don’t need to officially select presidential nominees or, really, to conduct party business, why have conventions? Normally, they’re a bunch of speeches and parties; this year, they’re mainly just speeches. Organizers always hope that the events help unify the party, serving as the official launch of the general election campaign and giving their candidate a boost in the polls. In truth, it’s been clear for months exactly who the nominees would be for both parties, and that’s usually the case. The idea of a post-convention bounce in the polls has faded in recent years as well.

We may return to in-person conventions once the pandemic is under control, but if we do, there’s no reason to give them breathless wall-to-wall coverage again, because they’re probably not going to make much of a difference anyway. That’s been the case for years; hopefully now more people begin to realize it.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at:
Twitter: jimfossel

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