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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?

Rarely a day goes by without some journalist noting that another Member of Congress is passing up the very forgettable opportunity of attending his or her party’s convention later this summer.

The list of media outlets to report on this “development” is long and getting longer: the New York Times, CBS News, USA Today, CNN, ABC News, NPR and all of the major Washington, D.C., newspapers, including Roll Call.

Here’s a bulletin: Nobody cares. Or, at least, nobody should care.

These kinds of decisions by officeholders are “news” only if you assume that officeholders are supposed to go to the conventions. In fact, some go and others don’t. And yes, politics is part of the equation.

Politicians often avoid their party’s national conventions, particularly when there is a less-than-popular incumbent president running for re-election. Many West Virginia Democrats would prefer to run local races, so why give their opponents an opportunity to get photographs or video of them in Charlotte with “national” Democrats.

Let’s be completely honest here. Reporters often ask questions of politicians just to see them squirm, and “Why aren’t you going to Charlotte/Tampa?” is just such a question.

If West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) gave the obvious answer — “Are you kidding? President Obama is about as popular as whooping cough in my state. I don’t want to be seen partying with liberals because Republicans could use that against me in my race for re-election” — he’d be the topic du jour on every talk show for a couple of days, and he’d have the White House and high-profile national Democrats pounding on him, much as Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) and former Obama auto czar Steven Rattner did when they defended private equity managers.

So it’s easier for Manchin and others to find other excuses, some of which are also valid.

If you are a candidate, you can probably find a better use of the five days that you’d lose by going to the convention — maybe meet some voters, film some commercials or even recharge your batteries with your friends and family for the final stretch.

Other than the possible opportunity to raise money, conventions are a waste of time for candidates. Actually, they are a waste of time for pretty much everybody, except of course those vendors who are actually making money from the events — the hotels, taxi companies and restaurants and bars where convention attendees gather.

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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