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The Parties and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention

The party convention no longer has a deliberative role. Since 1972 it has served to ratify decisions made in the primaries and caucuses. Increasingly, it is also a showcase for the nominees and a display of party unity. Both parties in 1996 presented rigidly choreographed conventions that kept any sign of division off the convention floor. This practice will be repeated in 2000.

Although conflict at a convention makes for good television, it does not always make for good politics.

The parties have reason to be hesitant of an unconstrained convention. Although conflict at a convention makes for good television, it does not always make for good politics. The 1968 Democratic convention when street protests competed with the podium for the viewer's attention is a powerful reminder of a convention gone awry. Nevertheless, there is no clear evidence that a modicum of dissent (as opposed to all-out strife) at a convention would hurt the party's general election campaign.2 Moreover, there is a price to pay for a highly staged convention: the party loses audience. When we asked respondents in our Vanishing Voter survey why they would not be watching the conventions, the major reason beyond the customary dismissals of election politics "I'm too busy" and "I'm not interested" was that the conventions lack suspense and excitement.

The parties have a stake in preserving the on-the-air televised convention. Although the televised debates in the general election are more widely seen as decisive encounters that can decide the election outcome, far more votes are influenced by what happens during the convention period.

All but two nominees since 1960 (Johnson in 1964 and McGovern in 1972) have received a favorable "bounce" in the polls from their convention. Nominees are able to use the conventions as a time to increase their support. The size of the bounce has varied considerably, however, and the net result has usually made the election more competitive. The nominee who gains the most is typically the one who has been "underperforming" that is, doing worse in the polls than could be expected given the public's satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the performance of the incumbent administration and other such factors. Conventions offer a nominee in this position (for example, Bush in 1988) an opportunity to gain support among wavering partisans and independents.3

  Fig. 2: Percentage Making Vote Choice During Convention Period, 1960-1996
Percentage Making Vote Choice During Convention Period, 1960-1996
Source: American National Election Studies.

As convention audiences have declined, however, so too has the proportion of voters who make their choice during the conventions (see Figure 2). To the degree that the parties have a stake in solidifying their partisan base and in an age of weakened partisanship, their stake would seem large they have a stake in enhancing the appeal of the on-the-air convention.

Over a longer period, the visibility of the national party convention may also be important to the parties' ability to capture the interest of young people. In an earlier age, the on-the-air televised convention was to the parties what the World Series was to baseball. It served to kindle interest in party politics among children and adolescents. It is unlikely that today's conventions have anywhere near the same impact.

The Networks and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention >>

2. See Thomas Holbrook, Do Campaigns Matter? (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996).

3. See James E. Campbell, Lynne Cherry, and Kenneth Wink, "The Convention Bump," American Politics Quarterly 20 (1992): 287-307.

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