What makes a Political Party Convention Successful? Some thoughts from American Political Science

While I follow American politics, and I am a political scientist, rarely do I a take a great deal of interest in writing about American Politics.  It is almost never an academic interest (so my apologies in advance to my fellow American political scientists). However, this year’s Presidential race and the recent Republican Party convention have taken me back to my days of American politics seminars—reading VO Key, Herrera, Page, Shapiro, Mayhew, etc….

I am left with one question:

What makes a political party convention a “political success?” What measures can we use to assess the success of a political party convention?

American Political Science can offer some valuable lessons in this regard.

First, how successful a party convention is at reaching out to middle-level party activists and generating party cohesion is perhaps the most important measure of a successful convention. Conventions are the pinnacle of political party cohesion in the United States—the one single event that pulls all party activists together over several days. What is party cohesion? V.O. Key defined it as choosing the nominee that does not “outrage the sensibilities of any significant minority within the party.” [1]  By this definition, merely finding the best choice to appeal to the average Joe—median voter—within the political party results in a cohesive party.

I prefer an alternative definition of political party cohesion posed by Richard Herrera—a cohesive party is  “one that has general agreement among its activists on matters of policy.”[2] By choosing to focus on the level of agreement among party activists on policy issues—rather than merely the likability of candidates—we can then use this definition to extend beyond what happens inside of a convention hall.  Because it is the opinions of mid-level party activists—delegates and general attendees—that most affect local, partisan opinions after conventions occur.

How is this relevant to today’s party conventions? Simple, if you want to understand the “success” of a convention, you need to understand the opinions being formed of the delegates and party representatives in each political party convention.  I’m not talking about the speakers who get up and get all of the applause, but rather, those folks in the audience roaming around the convention hall.  Understanding the success of a convention has little to do with the public likability of a party’s presidential nominee in the polls afterwards (at least not initially).  In other wards, don’t just look at the opinions of the media and folks around you to determine how successful a convention is or not—listen to what the delegates from the convention have to say.  Hear responses from party activists.

Second, conventions convey how political party nominees will best represent the interests of their constituents.  Conventions are one of the few opportunities—outside of the presidential debates—where presidential nominees get full command of the media and public eye to voice their policy platforms and vision of leadership if even for a short time span. Just as cohesion is perhaps best defined in today’s American context by looking at agreement of political party activists on policy issues, representation is also best defined by assessing how presidential nominees best represent an individual’s policy interests.[3]

We could also looks at forms of symbolic/descriptive representation.  Does this party’s presidential nominee look like me? This usually means representation on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. While symbolic representation has been shown to be an important markers of political representation in the United States, most Americans still vote on policy issues such as health, education, and the country’s economic wellbeing.[4]

Hence, if we want to look at the success of a party convention on the basis of representation, I’d argue that we would have to account for just how well a presidential nominee manages to convey his policy platforms to the public.

Third, how well the spectacle is conveyed to the public is a final plausible measure of a successful convention. Conventions are a political spectacle created and conveyed immediately to the public through social networking and the media.  In a sociological sense, a convention is a spectacle that thrives on language about event created through media and developments that those present experience. Events take their meaning from the language used to depict them.  The language created by media and those on the ground about the convention is converted to political reality for the public. There is no “other” so far as the meaning of events to actor and spectators is concerned.[5]

What does this gibberish mean? In short, the media and social networking create the political reality of the convention, as we—in the public—perceive it. The media influences our opinions.

For instance, a recent empirical analysis conducted by Jonathan S. Morris, highlights the influence of The Daily Show’s “Indecision 2004” campaign coverage.  Morris uses National Annenberg Election Survey data in which surveyors asked respondents about their TV habits—just how much they watched “The Daily Show” during the campaign.  His results show that exposure to The Daily Show’s convention coverage was associated with increased negativity toward President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. These relationships remained significant even when controlling for one’s political party and their party ideology.  In other words, even conservative Republicans who watched the daily show were more likely to express negativity towards Bush and Cheney relative to conservative, Republicans who did not watch The Daily show.[6]

How the media portrays the events of a political party convention ultimately influence our own perceptions of the event.

With that in mind, and since this is my blog, I leave you with this concluding media clip analyzing the Republican National Convention: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDWOduw-Rnc

[1] Key, V.O. 1942. Political Parties and Pressure Groups. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, p. 476

[2] Herrera, Richard. 1993. “Cohesion at the Party Conventions: 1980-1988. Polity 26  (1): 75-89.

[3] Miller, Warren E. and Donald Stokes.1963.”Constituency Influence in Congress.” American Political Science Review 57:45-56.

[4] Page ,Benjamin I., and Robert Y Shapiro.1992. The Rational Public:  Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

[5] Murray, Edelman. 1988. Constructing the Political Spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Morris, Jonathan S. 2009. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Audience Attitude Change during the 2004 Party Conventions.” Political Behavior 31(1): 79-102.

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