Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Unconventional Convention

This is a bigger deal than people think:
In addition to announcing that President Obama would deliver his acceptance speech at Bank of America stadium, Democrats also said yesterday that they were shortening the convention from four days to three. (On Labor Day, they will instead gather at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for a day of organizing.) Make no mistake: This change will have a lasting repercussion. We likely won’t ever see four-day conventions any more. Also, given that they have just three days to work with, Democrats have a potential primetime scheduling challenge on their hands. How do you find three days to fit in primetime speeches by Obama, the first lady, the vice president, the keynote speaker, and Bill Clinton (who you know will want to receive speaking time)?
Of course, with Labor Day as an "organizing" day it's still de facto four days.

I don't think the convention, an institution nearly as archaic as the electoral college, will ever fade away completely. (What is gone forever is the political junkie's ultimate fantasy: the brokered convention.) The delegate seats are just too big a perk for the mid-level politicos who compete for them. The longest delegate fight I ever saw was in an uncontested year, 1996. We were voting until 3:45 AM at the state convention for the last national delegate seat.

Three kinds of people get elected out of district and state conventions as national delegates, but 95 percent of that is one kind of people.

I remember a line of eighty-four people waiting to speak and running for four Obama delegate seats at the `08 2nd CD convention. Mostly fresh-faced youngsters, but some long time veterans as well, as national delegate is kind of a lifetime achievement award. At that 2008 district convention, the first of those 84 people elected was former House Democratic leader Dick Myers, who amazingly had never been a national delegate before. Dick was one of the first six people in the whole country to back Jimmy Carter back in 1975, and even that was only good enough for national alternate.

That's most of the delegates and serious contenders. Legislative committee chairs, mayors, state central committee members, former congressional candidates.

Sometimes, though, national delegate is a Rookie Of The Year prize. Usually one of those fresh-faced youngsters gets elected out of the whole state. That's a good thing, and a lot of these folks are all-star activists, at least for a cycle or two. Sometimes they stay active longer, other times life intervenes. But they work hard at it while they're around.

Then there's the fluke winner, again usually one in the state per cycle. The person who no one has ever seen before who decides: "I want to get involved in politics! I'll start simple by going to the national convention so I can learn about it!" having no clue how hard that is. And they get lucky. Give a good speech, maybe have the right combinations of demographics (a big deal at Democratic conventions), and capture the zeitgeist of the day. They get third and fourth and fifth choice votes on the early ballots and make it to the late rounds. (Democrats make you use all your votes on every ballot; if it's a Vote For Five ballot you have to use all five.) Their friends stick around late while supporters of the also-rans drift away after 1:00 or 2:00 AM, and they stumble into a win. Such is democracy.

The old-timers hide their disappointment that their lifelong friend just lost, welcome the n00b, and hope she or he turns out to be a Rookie Of The Year.

The newcomer goes to the convention, gets their picture taken with some famous people, comes home... and never shows up at the phone bank. You see them once, probably on the stage when the vice presidential nominee comes through the state. Four years later, you look at an old list and have no idea who that person was.

Just describing a phenomenon here, not trying to be elitist.

Which leads to the subject, much discussed in 2008 but an afterthought this cycle, of the superdelegates, the high-level officials who are automatic national delegates on the Democratic side. One problem with getting rid of the superdelegates that isn't discussed much: If the congressman has to run against the 84 fresh-faced youngsters and mid-level officials, the congressman will win. And the congressman doesn't want to beat the fresh-faced youngsters and mid-level officials, because that win will hurt some feelings and alienate some folks.

The three day convention is also the latest convention ever, concluding on September 6. Historically the out party went in mid-July and the president's party in early August. The Democrats went in late August in 1964 and 1968 at the bequest of LBJ's ego, as he wanted his conventions to run over his August 27 birthday. Of course, `68 wound up not being "his" convention after all, and the Democrats had less time to reunite their bitterly split party. That wound up taking 40 years anyway but who's counting.

It was the Republicans who first broke the September barrier in 2008. They also, sort of, broke the four day barrier, scuttling most of their Monday proceedings to look sensitive as a hurricane headed to the Gulf coast.

Third party activists will note -- did, in fact, note in 2008 -- that September is after the filing deadline in many states including Iowa, a legal issue that the major parties frankly fudged in some cases. I know the importance of a good campaign kickoff, which this convention is clearly meant to be. But I'm also enough of a rules and credentials geek (post-caucus work is still cutting into my writing time, dear readers) that I believe in fair play.

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