News Release

Do Conventions Matter?

MILDRED ELIZABETH SANDERS, mes14 at cornell.edu

Sanders is professor of government at Cornell University and author of Roots of Reform and the forthcoming Presidents, War, and Reform. Beginning Wednesday, she is scheduled to be at the American Political Science Association Convention in New Orleans. Sanders recently wrote the piece “What We Should be Talking About: Romney’s Foreign Policy Advisers.”

She said today: “The conventions seem even less important this year, since we have an incumbent Democratic ticket, and two pretty well-known Republicans — plus an era of stable, highly-polarized partisanship that leaves little to learn about the two sets of candidates and their platforms.

“Conventions used to matter much more, before the era of rules reform began in 1972. Through the early 1960s, you had actual debates about party policy and direction. The Democrats in 1968 decided to change their rules in a way that had momentous consequences. And the Republicans, who also changed their rules, though less extremely, displayed at their 1976 convention an open struggle for the soul of their party — between the old Northeast/Midwestern moderates and the upstart Southern and Western conservatives who now dominate the GOP.

“Increasingly, the rules allowed for ‘lone wolf’ candidates to emerge, who might not be closely tied to the party, but had consummate ambition and access to a fundraising apparatus outside the party. The Citizens United decision in 2010 only exacerbates that tendency by weakening further the party role in campaign finance, and enabling small groups of wealthy individuals, not (ostensibly) linked directly to the candidate, to finance hundreds of campaign ads. So the conventions this year will represent a peak (or nadir, from the perspective of broad-based democracy) of self-selected funders who have already shown their clout, and will weigh heavily in the general election outcome. No wonder the major networks can’t bear to cover more than a few hours of the process this year.”