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Conventions: From Meaningful to Meaningless

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Party nominating conventions are nothing more than heavily scripted and choreographed TV commercials, Stuart Rothenberg writes. Who can blame politicians for skipping them?

It’s not as if there is real news coming out of conventions. If you’ve followed conventions during the past few decades, you know that they are now largely heavily scripted television commercials for the parties with few really interesting developments.

Could Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) throw a monkey wrench into Tampa? Yes, I suppose so. And even if it’s a small monkey wrench, you can be sure the zillions of reporters chasing anything that even smells of a story will make it into something much bigger than it really is.

After all, if you are hungover from last night’s parties and have had to work all day trying to dig up something interesting to report, you’ll find even the slightest sign of party division tantalizing. I’m sure there will be plenty of mountains made from molehills in both Tampa and Charlotte.

The Republican and Democratic national convention organizers estimate that about 15,000 journalists will be attending each event — a far larger contingent than the number of delegates at either convention. Put that many journalists together with that little news (and some alcohol in the evenings) and you are asking for trouble.

Of course, there was a time when conventions mattered. Even as late as the 1960s and 1970s, conventions were unpredictable. Credentials challenges mattered. Platform fights were interesting. Would floor activities push back a presidential nominee’s acceptance speech so late that everyone on the East Coast had already gone to bed?  

I still remember watching the 1968 Democratic convention on television, my jaw dropping with each unexpected development.

This year, the national party conventions are likely to have no effect — none — in deciding who wins the presidential election in November. They aren’t even likely to be interesting.

These days, general election campaigns get in full swing before the party nominees are even selected. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using “primary” dollars now, but is there any doubt that we have been in a general election campaign for months?

So, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Manchin are skipping Charlotte? Fine. Big deal. Next subject. Former Sen. George Allen (Va.), former Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.) and Connecticut Senate hopeful Linda McMahon are skipping the GOP convention in Tampa? Noted. Yawn.

One pollster recently put all of the chatter about politicians skipping their convention into proper perspective: “It’s not really news when a politician decides not to attend a party. It’s news when a politician decides to leave the party.”

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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