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Whither the Convention Audience?

The findings reported here suggest an uncertain future for the party convention as an audience-based event. The hardcore convention audience is aging, and the inadvertent audience, though large, will most likely continue to diminish if political interest and network convention coverage decline further as seems certain for the foreseeable future.

If the televised conventions are to be preserved as a key moment in presidential campaign politics a time when millions of Americans come together simultaneously to share a common and substantial political experience changes in policies and attitudes will have to occur. It is not too late to bolster the televised convention, and it would be a mistake to conclude that a declining audience signifies a nearly complete lack of public interest in the televised convention. On each night of the GOP convention, more than 50 million adult Americans watched at least part of the proceedings, and a majority of them watched for a half hour or more.

  Table 5: What did you think of the convention?
  Interesting Informative
Extremely 11% 8%
Very 24% 28%
Somewhat 45% 41%
Not too& 12% 13%
Not at all 7% 6%
Source: Vanishing Voter Poll, Aug. 1-6, 2000.

Moreover, the GOP convention was perceived favorably by those who watched more than just a few minutes of it (see Table 5). Slightly more than a third (35%) of these viewers described the convention as "extremely" or "very" interesting. Another 45% said it was "somewhat" interesting. The proportions that found it "extremely," "very," or "somewhat" informative were nearly identical. Although a convention may not contain a lot of information that is new or exciting to the pundits, the average citizen gets his or her first extended exposure to the campaign through convention coverage.

The over-the-air networks have justified their cutbacks in convention coverage by pointing to declining audience ratings and the availability of convention coverage on cable. However, for the moment at least, there is no adequate substitute for extensive broadcast coverage. The size of the inadvertent audience is partly a function of the number of hours of over-the-air convention coverage. Cutbacks in broadcast coverage create a vicious circle: they contribute to a further decline in audience that justifies a further reduction in coverage and so on. The convention audience will continue to shrink unless the networks choose to provide more substantial coverage.

The political parties, too, need to rethink their convention policy. The parties are under the impression-a mistaken one, judging from comparisons of the "bounce" that nominees have received from past conventions2 that even a hint of conflict and disharmony at the convention will undermine the nominee's chances in the general election. But, as our survey indicates, a carefully orchestrated convention diminishes its audience appeal. In the long term, the parties may have a larger stake in holding onto their convention audiences than in glossing over their internal differences.

The Internet is not, at least in its present form, the answer to the problem of the dwindling convention audience. The motivations that people bring to the Internet are a much more powerful influence than what's available to them online. There are thousands upon thousands of Internet destinations, and where people go and how long they stay is chiefly a function of their interests. Internet exposure is far less haphazard than television exposure. Although viewers often settle for a television program that they have encountered by chance when monitoring channels, Internet users begin their search with a particular destination in mind. Unless they have an interest in politics, they are unlikely to seek out a political site or, if they encounter it, to stay for more than a few seconds.

The real challenge of today's elections, then, is to stimulate public interest. Most scholarly efforts to enhance the presidential election process have aimed to improve the quality of campaign information. The election is conceived as a time to educate the public about candidates and issues, and the news media and candidates are urged to respond to the opportunity. An abundance of good information, however, is of no consequence if people are unwilling to attend to it. At this moment in American history, citizens-particularly younger ones-are not highly interested in presidential politics and do not follow it very closely.

From the public's perspective, the most substantial argument for strengthening the televised convention is the impact of convention exposure on people's involvement in the campaign and their information about the candidates. The conventions are a time when public interest in the campaign is sparked and when public learning is heightened.

The Vanishing Voter Project has tracked public involvement in the 2000 campaign for nearly nine months. The public's involvement has not built slowly as the campaign has wound its way toward November. Instead, involvement has risen and fallen as key events in the campaign come and go. It is further the case that citizens tend to acquire information about the candidates and issues only during peak involvement periods. The public awareness of Bush and Gore's policy stands actually declined when the campaign went into hibernation after Super Tuesday.

The conventions are a key campaign moment the key moment of the summer and early fall. The more substantial the public's involvement in this period, the more substantial their consideration of the issues and the candidates. The televised convention, despite its weakened state, is a critical factor in heightening the campaign involvement of an electorate that is increasingly politically disengaged. A significant number of voters will choose their candidate during the convention period. The quality of these decisions will rest partly on the public's willingness to engage the campaign more fully, which depends partly on the prominence and attractiveness of the televised party convention.

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2. See Thomas Holbrook, Do Campaigns Matter? (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage, 1966).

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