navigation bar U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany About the USA Sitemap Search

Elections 2004 Logo

The Evolution of Political Conventions
An Interview with Nelson W. Polsby

(Election Focus, July 14, 2004) pdf

In a recent interview, Nelson W. Polsby, Heller Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley spoke with Washington File staff writer Darlisa Crawford about how political conventions have evolved over the course of U.S. history and the role they play in the 2004 election. Polsby is a distinguished political scientist and the author or co-author of 14 books on American politics.

Question: What was the role of political conventions in the past and how has it changed? What is the relevance of political conventions today?

Polsby: It's changed a lot. National party conventions used to pick the nominee and now at most, they ratify what's already been done in the process well before the convention. So the role of the convention now is entirely advertising for the nominee and for the party. It's an advertising medium. It is not a real decision making organization anymore.

Question: Have the mechanics of conventions—how candidates are selected and how platforms are presented—changed?

Polsby: Not much. No. The mechanics are roughly the same, but the significance is completely different now.

Question: How has television changed political conventions over the years?

Polsby: The real coverage of television started in 1952. It's changed enormously, of course, because there used to be something to cover and there isn't anymore. So, the television networks are cutting way back on what they show, simply because they realize that there is no significance to what is going on except as advertising.

Question: World Wide Web coverage of conventions started in 2000. Will cyber-coverage have any impact on the political conventions in 2004?

Polsby: I assume not. No. I don't see how they could have an impact on the conventions. It is simply a different set of channels through which advertising can proceed. In that sense, it is very important. I think the Internet and that kind of stuff is more and more important in mobilizing voters and raising money. So, the Internet is very important, but it won't have any impact on the convention. However, the convention may have some impact on it.

Question: According to Campaign Finance Institute analysis, private donations rose 208 percent in 2000 and are projected to rise another 297 percent in 2004. Can you please comment on the role of private donations in relation to political conventions?

Polsby: They don't have much to do with political conventions. They do have a lot to do with making it possible to spread the message around the respective candidates. The population of the country grows. Expenses go up all the time. Of course, you have to spend more money to stand still. Political money is being mobilized somewhat more efficiently today than it was true a few years ago. Mainly, I think because of the Internet.

Question: What do you think political conventions will look like in the future?

Polsby: They have been on a declining curve for some time. I think that they will probably gently decline even more. They are just advertising. That is all they are. Of course, they might be interesting, if and only if, intra-party squabbling breaks out and some faction within a political party attempts to embarrass the nominee. That's interesting and reportable news and people will be on top of that, but other than that, I don't think the future holds much for national party conventions, unless they change the rules of nomination, which I think is unlikely in the near term.