Primary: Why the rescheduling of the Democratic National Convention will likely benefit Trump
The Democratic Party recently announced that it would set back its presidential nomination convention by more than a month due to concerns about COVID-19. James D. king writes that party reforms over the past 50 years have meant that national conventions have become an advertisement for a predetermined candidate rather than a place to decide the candidate. He comments that by bringing their convention so close to Republicans, Democratic candidate Joe Biden risks missing a traditional rebound in the post-convention ballot.
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The Democratic National Committee recently ad that its 2020 national convention has been postponed, shifting dates from July 13 to 16 to August 17 to 20, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions on travel and social activities. This places the Democratic convention just a week ahead of the Republican national convention, scheduled for August 24-24. The effect this change will have on the outcome of the presidential election is uncertain. A party that holds its nominating convention usually has the national media scene to itself, which gives it the opportunity to pitch its candidate and its ideals. But as in many aspects of politics, timing is of the essence, and changing convention dates could hurt former Vice President Joe Biden’s chances of toppling President Donald Trump.
The role of national party nomination conventions has changed. From their creation in the first half of the 19th century until the 1960s, the conventions were veritable deliberative bodies which selected the candidates for the presidency and the vice-presidency of their parties. A platform proclaiming a party’s positions on major policy issues was adopted and a candidate promising to support the platform was appointed. Most convention delegates were chosen by local or state party leaders who, in turn, pledged their support and the support of their delegations to potential candidates. Few delegates were selected in competitive primary elections. John F. Kennedy’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination in 1960 was representative of the nomination campaigns of that time, when only sixteen states held primaries and just over a third of delegates were selected by that era. method. Kennedy campaigned aggressively in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primary elections, not to capture convention delegates, but to demonstrate to party leaders that a New England Catholic could win in the industrial Midwest and in a strongly Protestant state. Kennedy and his surrogates simultaneously met privately with Democratic leaders across the country to gain their support at the upcoming convention. (Kennedy’s successful strategy for securing the Democratic nomination is recounted by Theodore H. White in his classic The making of the chair 1960).
The party reforms of the 1970s, with a majority of delegates chosen in primary elections and party caucuses and promised to specific candidates, changed the role of national conventions. Now, a candidate accumulates enough promised delegates to ensure the nomination. The party platform is written to conform to the positions of the potential candidate with perhaps a board or two added to secure support from rivals for the nomination. The only suspense came with the selection of a vice presidential candidate, but this was eliminated by the practice of presumptive candidates announcing their choices before the convention. Thus, a convention is now an advertisement lasting several days for the party and its candidate. National television networks have ditched extensive convention coverage, leaving that to cable networks such as CNN and Fox News. The candidate’s acceptance speech, ostensibly addressed to the delegates in the arena but genuinely to the national audience, is the only convention event guaranteed to receive maximum television exposure.
In light of what has become of national party conventions, one has to wonder what effect the five-week delay of the Democratic National Convention will have on the 2020 presidential election. Parties choose their convention cities for gains. election in November. Academic research shows that a candidate wins little in the state that hosted the naming convention, but for the parties, hope is eternal. Democrats certainly expect the meeting in Milwaukee this summer to boost their candidate’s chances of winning Wisconsin (which Trump won by less than 25,000 votes in 2016) in November. The change in agreement dates should have little impact on this point. Local media will cover the Democratic National Convention as extensively in August as they would in July.
“The fall of the balloon at the end of the Democratic convention” through Lorie Shaullis licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0
The uncertainty is the long-term effect of the change in dates for the Democratic National Convention. Presidential candidates in general get boosts conventions of their parties. With the national media scene all to itself, a party shines a light on its ideals and presents its presidential candidate. The result is normally a boost for the candidate, but the extent of what is known as “conventional bounce” is affected by timing. By tradition, the party that does not hold the White House holds its convention first and its candidate goes to the polls. The longer the time between the agreements of the two parties, the more the candidate has the opportunity to solidify the support obtained through greater media exposure of the agreement. Since 1976, the candidate whose party held its first convention recorded an average net gain in public support of three percentage points when the interval between conventions was four weeks or more. When conventions open just a week or two apart, media attention quickly shifts from the nominee at the first convention to the presumptive at the second convention. The nominee at the second convention gained an average of one and a half percentage points throughout the process.
This begs the question of how the rescheduling of the Democratic National Convention affects Joe Biden’s challenge to Donald Trump. Most polls taken in late April and early May show Biden leading Trump, but in many polls the difference is in the margin of error. The usual three percentage point increase coupled with long interludes between conventions would push Biden’s lead in many polls beyond the margin of error. Instead, the conventions that are held over successive weeks offer Trump an opportunity to close the gap or perhaps lead his Democratic opponent.
Much remains uncertain as the national conventions of both parties are still three months away. The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to disrupt “politics as usual” in the United States. This remains a major concern – perhaps the main concern – of voters and polls show more Americans disapproving of president’s response than approving. Nonetheless, historical trends suggest that Trump will benefit more than Biden from the change in Democratic National Convention dates.
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To note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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About the Author
James D. king–University of Wyoming
James D. King is Professor of Political Science in the School of Politics, Public Affairs, and International Studies at the University of Wyoming. Most recently, he was a Fulbright Fellow at Flinders University in Australia, investigating how elements of the Australian electoral system could be used to reform US electoral procedures.