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Sunday, 30 July, 2000, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
US conventions: Showbiz politics
Republican convention
Today's US political conventions target prime-time TV
By US affairs analyst Gordon Corera

The conventions are one of the great set pieces of American politics.

Conventions 2000
Expected attendance
Total attendees: Republicans 45,000; Democrats 35,000
Media: 15,000
Republican delegates: 2,066
Democrat delegates: 4,339
Protesters: 20,000 estimated
Taking place every four years they are the one occasion when, in order to nominate their presidential and vice presidential candidates, the entire national party comes together for a mixture of politics and partying.

In days gone by party apparatchiks gathered in smoke-filled rooms to decide who would be their standard bearer in the presidential election.

But now, thanks to the primary system, the identity of the candidate is known well in advance.

Lights, camera, action!

In a sense, the level of suspense in conventions has declined dramatically, as they become increasingly stage-managed for television audiences.

George W Bush
No news: George W Bush will be proclaimed Republican candidate
But the way in which they are stage-managed can tell us a lot about the people who stage them and what they are trying to do in the presidential campaign.

It is also an indicator of how the messages they push resonate amongst the public.

Finally, conventions provide the chance to energise delegates and send them out with a clear message and a sense of unity for the general election.

And beneath the swathes of ritual, glamour and ceremony, conventions still play a significant role in the election campaign - typically up to 20% of voters make their choice during the convention period.


AL Gore's official nomination will be later in August
Because of the extensive media coverage, candidates usually get a bounce out of their convention - a rise in their standing in the polls.

If a candidate can provide a compelling picture of themselves, what they stand for and what they will do, and can then build on and maintain the resultant bounce they can establish a lead which can take them all the way to election day.

Good old days

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan won the nomination almost entirely due to an electrifying speech on the convention floor.

Multiple ballots for presidential candidates were common and delegates would often change their mind.

US Party symbols
Traditional symbols: the Republican elephant and the Democrat donkey
The Republicans in 1920, and the Democrats four years later, both came out with candidates whom no-one had expected to win (and many had not even heard of) after multiple ballots (103 over nine days in the Democrats' case in 1924).

Since then, there have been only four occasions when more than one ballot has been needed and none since 1956.

The last brokered conventions were in 1952, when leaders of both main parties gathered in the back rooms to select Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois and General Eisenhower.

Prime-time conventions

The shift to the more stage-managed pieces of political theatre we witness today begun with the arrival of TV coverage but were greatly accelerated through the 1970s and 1980s, leading to something which is almost tension free nowadays.

Conventions' new role
Tells us who's who in campaign
Energise party delegates
Give party sense of unity
Up to 20% voters decide vote during convention period
In the 1950s, the key moments at conventions could attract up to 50% of the potential viewing audience and the networks gave gavel-to-gavel coverage. Now network coverage is restricted to only a couple of hours maximum during prime-time.

Conventions have become highly scripted and celebrity speakers and movie stars often make appearances.

Some business is still done at the conventions but the focus is mainly on "prime time" - the hours in the evening when the TV networks tune in and the big speakers get their chance in the limelight.

Democrat convention 1992
No candidate is such before the show
On the last night the presidential candidate gives his big speech - a key opportunity to outline to the nation the major themes of his campaign.

As the balance has shifted towards stage-managed spectacle, making use of free national media coverage, the media itself has often become less interested, criticising the lack of substance and slowly scaling back its coverage.

But the party bosses cannot entirely prevent political drama and surprises - such as the sex scandal and subsequent resignation of Presidential adviser Dick Morris during the Democrat's 1996 convention.

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10 Mar 00 | Election news
Bush and Gore square up
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