The purpose of a political convention is to unite the party. That’s the GOP’s task in Cleveland.
What are political conventions for? If you’ve ever been to one, you might think the purpose is for attendees to schmooze, drink, and drink some more. That holds true both for the delegates and for the journalists, who usually outnumber them by at least three to one.
But that’s not actually why political conventions exist. They’re sort of like volunteer fire departments that almost never get a call. It’s not that the firefighters don’t want to put out fires, but until they’re needed, they’re pretty happy to play cards, watch movies, and eat chili. They understand that when the call actually comes, the game ends, the TV goes off, and the boots go on. Originally, conventions were partly a technological solution to a real problem. Phones didn’t exist and mail was too slow to coordinate the desires of the party faithful across a whole nation. (Also, few negotiators want to put all of their bargaining positions in writing.) You needed lots of face-to-face meetings. By the 1960s, the telephone started to erode this function of conventions, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Michael Barone has written. Barone also notes that the media took one of the key jobs away from party bosses: counting delegates. The first media delegate count wasn’t until 1968, by CBS News.
Not long thereafter, conventions started to resemble infomercials. A political party throws a surprise party for the nominee that isn’t a surprise, because the nominee was determined well before the convention. In fact, the nominee is actually the party-planner-in-chief, choosing who sings his praises and when. The ending is no more in doubt than the question of whether the Ginsu knife in the TV ad will really be able to cut through the can. But the core purpose of conventions never disappeared. It just got buried under all of the bunting and balloons. Even the communication function of the convention was a means to an end, not the end itself. The real goal was to pick a nominee who could unify the party. That’s it. It wasn’t to pick a nominee who could win in November. That’s a huge consideration, but it was only one (very important) factor in deliberations over who should get the nomination. Barry Goldwater didn’t get the Republican nomination in 1964, nor George McGovern the Democratic nomination in 1972, because they were seen as the best candidates to win a general election. They got the nomination because that is who the delegates, informed by voters, wanted as their standard-bearers.
Ideally, the candidate who satisfies both criteria — speaks for us and is most electable — is the nominee. But that doesn’t always happen. This is precisely the dilemma the GOP is facing in July. Donald Trump may indeed end up being the nominee, but he’s nowhere close to the most electable candidate the GOP could offer, and he’s easily the most divisive choice the party could make. Ted Cruz is better on both scores – I would be happy to see him get the nomination – but he also has problems on both fronts.
John Kasich has a theory that he is more electable – and he may be right, though I’m unconvinced – but there’s very little evidence that many Republicans outside of Ohio want him to be their champion. The current debate about the GOP nominating process (It’s rigged! It’s undemocratic!) is largely hogwash. If it’s rigged, it’s rigged in favor of the front-runner, which is why Trump’s share of delegates is higher than his share of votes. The nominating system was set up not as some reality-show contest to see who can get the most delegates. It was set up to see who can unify the party. The primary system was introduced to give voters the first whack at that task. (But they didn’t always have the final say: Robert A. Taft got more votes than Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, but Ike got the nomination.) If Trump fails to get 1,237 delegates – still the most likely outcome – that will mean the voters collectively failed to find a unifier.
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