Why Political Conventions Still Matter

Important business will go down in Tampa and Charlotte. You just won’t be able to see it.

The made-for-television national political conventions have become increasingly boring and long spectacles. But these carefully choreographed productions remain hugely important to the parties and their candidates.

The reason: What goes on in the back rooms, well out of sight of the television audience, matters most to the success of a campaign. That's where top campaign operatives and interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, labor and the Chamber of Commerce outline their endgame strategies and glad-hand the fat cats who write big checks to the campaigns, super PACS and political parties.

They share secret information on a need-to-know basis with some state organizers and operatives, but they make every word to loyal foot soldiers sound as if it is the most important thing they will hear all week. It's a time-tested ploy that pumps up the troops and makes them feel as if they have a foot inside the campaign war rooms.

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The message to big donors is different. They're warned of doom and potential failure if they don't pony up more cash and urge their friends to do the same. The campaigns warn that their candidates will be outspent and outgunned if they don't get a fresh set of checks ASAP and that they won't be able to do the bidding of the special interests if they lose the elections.

The conventions are scheduled as late in the summer as possible to officially kick off the fall campaign season with momentum. The Democratic bash in Charlotte, N.C., for example, will stretch beyond Labor Day this year.

The late events give the parties a better chance to keep faithful followers engaged. They are the people who will make thousands of phone calls on behalf of their candidates, knock on doors, pass out literature, register new voters, solicit donations, fill the seats at rallies and drive others of like mind to the polls.

If there is a real narrative to follow this year, it's not what will happen, but rather who isn't going. With each passing week, an unprecedented number of GOP and Democratic candidates announce that they'll skip the parties in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte and stay home to campaign. These candidates market their truancy as a badge of honor, telling voters they would rather be with them than rub elbows with the party machinery.

Others aren't there because they're not wanted. Former President George W. Bush is a good example. With President Obama's campaign painting GOP candidate Mitt Romney as an unflattering throwback to the Bush era, Bush's decision to stay home was welcome, but calculated, news for GOP organizers. Sure, Bush was invited, but the Romney campaign was aware that he wouldn't accept. Like the rest of the convention, it was part of the script.

So, barring a surprise such as a truly spontaneous protest from supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the conventions will be virtually news free.

This isn't to say that the conventions should be eliminated. But it might be time to consider limiting them to two or three days. Without question, a candidate's acceptance speech is critical to setting the tone for the final two months of the campaign. The keynote address and nominating speech should be part of the process, too.

Beyond that, there seems to be a lot of room for slimming down the process.

John Miley
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter

John Miley is a Senior Associate Editor at The Kiplinger Letter. He mainly covers technology, telecom and education, but will jump on other important business topics as needed. In his role, he provides timely forecasts about emerging technologies, business trends and government regulations. He also edits stories for the weekly publication and has written and edited e-mail newsletters.

He joined Kiplinger in August 2010 as a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, where he wrote stories, fact-checked articles and researched investing data. After two years at the magazine, he moved to the Letter, where he has been for the last decade. He holds a BA from Bates College and a master’s degree in magazine journalism from Northwestern University, where he specialized in business reporting. An avid runner and a former decathlete, he has written about fitness and competed in triathlons.