With the advent of television and the widespread adoption of primaries, the national parties' nominating conventions have largely been reduced from decision-making bodies to a rubber stamp function.  The conventions are, in fact, tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.   Nonetheless, these quadrennial gatherings still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties and can provide a boost for the nominee.


July 18-21, 2016
Quicken Loans Arena

July 25-28, 2016
Wells Fargo Center

The Changing Character of Conventions

In the past, the national convention served as a decision-making body, actually determining the party's nominee.  For example, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots to select John Davis as the nominee.  The last Democratic Convention to go beyond one ballot occurred in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot; the 1948 Republican Convention went to a third ballot before New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey won the nomination.  Republicans had a close vote in 1976 in Kansas City when President Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan by 1,187 votes to 1,070 votes.

Two significant changes have occurred in recent decades.  First, most of the national convention delegates are now selected by voters in primary contests rather than by party caucuses and meetings.  Second, with the advent of television, conventions have become tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.  Each party seeks to present itself in the best possible light and to demonstrate a united front rather than to hash out its differences. 

One could argue that modern day conventions are little more than four-day advertisements for the political parties.  Because there is no longer much suspense, conventions have suffered declining viewership, coverage by the major networks has been cut, and some observers have suggested that the conventions themselves should be cut to three days.

For a while it appeared that 2016 might be different for the Republicans.  The unorthodox candidacy of Donald Trump generated a significant number of disaffected Republicans (#NeverTrump) and it appeared quite possible that no candidate would achieve the 1,237 delegates needed to win the party's nomination.  In March and April 2016 there was a lot of talk about the prospect of a contested convention in Cleveland, but it ended rather quickly following Trump's win in the May 3 Indiana primary and his assumption of the mantle of presumptive nominee.

Even as rubber stamps, conventions still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties.  In many ways, the essence of a convention is what happens off of the convention floor.  In the lead-up to the convention, the drafting of the party platform provides interests aligned with the party a forum to present their concerns.  During the days of the convention itself, hundreds of events, caucuses, receptions, breakfasts, fundraisers, and parties take place in the hotels surrounding the convention hall.  At the end of the convention, party activists return to their communities energized for the fall campaign and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a "convention bounce."

Site Selection

Both parties conducted lengthy site selection processes to determine which cities will host their conventions.  Republicans started out with bids from eight cities, finally settling on Cleveland, OH.  Democrats started with five possibilities, and opted for Philadelphia, PA. 

While Republicans' three most recent conventions have been held in late August and early September, RNC chairman Reince Priebus made clear throughout the process his intention of holding the 2016 convention earlier, even suggesting the possibility of late June.  On Jan. 14, 2015 he announced the convention will be held July 18-21, 2016 (+).  On Jan. 23, 2015 DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced the Democrats' convention will be held the week of July 25, 2016.  Both conventions will thus occur before the Olympic Games, which will be held in Rio de Janiero from Aug. 5-21, 2016.


Once the host cities has been selected, the respective convention committees start work on the details of how to meet housing, transportation, security needs of more than 40,000 people.  Republicans have a Committee on Arrangements and Democrats have a Democratic National Convention Committee

Through 2012 the major party conventions had been funded in part by grants from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the $3 income tax check-off).  The grants, set out in the Federal Election Campaign Act, started at $2.2 million back in 1976 and were increased a couple of times in addition to being adjusted for cost-of-living increases.  To prepare their 2012 conventions, the Democrats and Republicans each received grants of about $17.7 million from the Treasury. 

Starting in 2016, as a result of H.R. 2019: Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, signed into law on April 3, 2014, the national party committees will no longer receive federal grants to help them put on their conventions.  That left the question of how to make up for the lost funding.  On Oct. 9, 2014 the FEC, responding to an Advisory Opinion Request (AOR) filed jointly by the DNC and RNC, ruled that the national party committees can establish convention committees that can raise federal funds under separate limits.  The decision was met with disfavor by campaign finance watchdog groups (+).

As important as the party convention committees are host committees.  [11 CFR 9008.52].  These non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(3) committees fulfill a range of functions.  Early on they promote the city's bid.  If the city is successful, the host committee sets to work raising money and in-kind contributions, recruiting volunteers and organizing events and activities to welcome delegates and media.  Corporate contributions to host committees and "municipal funds" have comprised an increasing share of spending on conventions, leading for some to call for stricter regulations.  The Campaign Finance Institute has argued that "policies of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Federal Election Commission (FEC) on 'host committee' fundraising are seriously outmoded" and provide a loophole for tens of millions of dollars of "soft money contributions to party-produced extravaganzas." 

The Cleveland 2016 Host Committee had a $64 million budget.  Due to the controversy over Trump, some corporate sponsors reduced their support compared to previous conventions or stayed away all together.  By July 15 there were reports that the committee was short of its goal and seeking $6 million from billionaire Sheldon Adelson.  Ultimately the committee reported total receipts off $67.4 million; and disbursements of $63.5 million.

Recent Democratic and Republican conventions have been designated as National Special Security Events, meaning that the U.S. Secret Service takes the lead role in assuring the safety and security of convention-goers.  The effort is complex and involves months of planning and dozens of entities and agencies.  In 2016 the host cities of Cleveland (+) and Philadelphia (+) each received $49.9 million federal grants for security.

Party Platforms

The platform outlines the party's philosophy and priorities and is prepared in advance of the convention.  Truth be told, party platforms are not widely read documents, but the process of writing a platform affords the party the opportunity to publicly seek input from its various constituencies.  During platform discussions some points of contention do arise, such as the Republican Party's quadrennial battle over its abortion plank, but generally any major dissension is ironed out before the platform reaches the convention.


Interest Groups

Interest groups work on many different levels.  Before the convention starts, interest groups weigh in on the party platform.  During the convention, groups organize receptions, forums, caucuses and meetings; some set up hospitality suites.  Also on hand at the convention is the opposing party, which generally sets up a communications shop and provides daily briefings and rapid response for reporters.  With thousands of media representatives on hand, many groups mobilize and try to get out their messages to a broader audience.  There are ad campaigns, special events and other creative efforts, and some groups take to the streets.


Conventions have long attracted an assortment of demonstrators.  One need only recall Chicago in 1968.  Nowadays convention planners provide specially designated protest areas near the convention halls as venues for various groups to make their points, but these are caged in and may not be accessible to convention attendees, so the action has tended to occur on the streets.  Most protesters are peaceful, but there are always a few troublemakers with destructive intentions.  

In Cleveland there were dozens of counter events from marches and rallies to panel discussions and film screenings.  One memorable event was Circle the City with Love; on July 17 thousands joined hands "in silent, peaceful reflection" across the Hope Memorial Bridge.  On July 20 activists from a number of groups joined to create a canvas banner to "wall off Trump."  CODEPINK even managed to get activists inside the hall to disrupt several of the speeches. 

In Philadelphia Sanders supporters held marches, rallies and events ranging from a "DC to DNC March for Democracy" to a "Revolutionary Celebration for We the People."  Americans Against Fracking held a "March for a Clean Energy Revolution" the day before the convention opened.  The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign did a "March for Our Lives" on the opening day of the convention.  Socialist groups from across the spectrum were represented at various events  

Atmosphere and Dynamics

Each convention city and venue poses a unique set of challenges and creates a distinctive atmosphere.  Heading into the convention, the soon-to-be formally nominated candidate announces his (or her) vice presidential running mate and generally does some kind of tour hitting key states.  Delegates arrive and activity begins.  Being a delegate is an exhilarating but exhausting experience.  A successful convention energizes attendees and activists, gets the message out to the broader public, and sends the ticket into the fall campaign with the convention bounce.

For Republicans heading to Cleveland, there were still efforts to deny Trump the nomination; these played out in the Rules Committee on July 14 and then on the convention floor.  Many prominent elected officials opted not to attend the Cleveland gathering.  The convention was unique in the extensive use of Trump's family.  Trump himself staged a grand entry on Wednesday, arriving in his jet at Burke Lakefront Airport and then flying in his helicopter to the Great Lakes Science Center where Gov. Mike Pence and his family joined him for an arrival ceremony.  Overall, Cleveland and organizers did a good job preparing for the event, and most attendees had a positive experience, describing the city with such words as "friendly, nice, clean, and safe." Inside the Q, however, there was a dark tone, as many of the speakers attacked Clinton and portrayed a country in trouble.  Polls nonetheless showed that Trump did achieve something of a convention bounce (>). 

Diversity was a major focus for organizers of the Democratic Convention.  The DNCC reported that as of May 2016, 61% of DNCC staff were women and 56% of DNCC staff were diverse. The host committee spent 67% of contract needs with diverse owned businesses and 40% of its vendor pool was comprised of diverse businesses.  As  Democrats headed to Philadelphia there was tension between Clinton and Sanders supporters.  The platform process diffused some of this, but Clinton's selection of Sen. Tim Kaine was seen as a setback. There was also the spectacle of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigning on the eve of the convention following release of hacked DNC emails.  Sanders supporters were particularly boisterous on the first night of the Convention, marked by dueling chants of "Hillary" and "Bernie."  On Tuesday the roll call vote concluded with Sanders asking that Clinton be nominated by acclamation, but some Sanders supporters walked out and occupied the front of one of the media tents.  Some Sanders delegates and activists vowed that they would never support Clinton; others acceded to the calls for unity.  Following the convention Clinton and Kaine embarked on a three-day bus tour.  The delegate experience in Philadelphia was rather different than Cleveland.  In Cleveland the activity was concentrated in downtown; Philadelphia is a much larger city, and things were more spread out, including the necessity of getting out to the Wells Fargo Center south of downtown.  Despite the tensions and difficult start, Clinton achieved a convention bounce as well. 

Economic Impact

Despite the infrastructure demands and security challenges, hosting a convention can provide a substantial economic boost to a city. 

Following the Republican Convention in Cleveland, the Host Committee commissioned two analyses, using different methodologies, of the convention's economic impact on the region (+).  The Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University used a micro analysis based on questionnaires completed by visitors and estimated $67.8 million in direct spending and a total economic impact of $142.2 million in a seven-county region [PDF].  Tourism Economics used a macro analysis based on an economic impact model and found $110.1 million in direct spending and $188.4 million total economic impact on the region [PDF]. 

For the Democratic Convention, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau reported direct convention-related spending of $132.9 million and total economic impact of $230.9 million [PDF].

Third Party Conventions

While the big networks have been giving less coverage to major party conventions in recent years, they generally have ignored third party conventions altogether.  Fortunately C-SPAN does cover these gatherings, as they provide one of the best opportunities to learn about ideas and viewpoints beyond those of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Constitution Party - Salt Lake City, UT - April 13-16, 2016

Libertarian Party - Orlando, FL - May 27-30, 2016

Green Party - Houston, TX - August 4-7, 2016

Sites of Recent Major Party Conventions

Cleveland, OH July 18-21
Philadelphia, PA July 25-28
Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL Aug. 27-30 Charlotte, NC  Sept. 4-6
2008 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN Sept. 1-4 Denver, CO  Aug. 25-28
2004 New York, NY  Aug. 30-Sept. 2 Boston, MA  July 26-29
2000 Philadelphia, PA  July 31-Aug. 3 Los Angeles, CA  Aug. 14-17
1996 San Diego, CA  Aug 12-15 Chicago, IL  Aug. 26-29
1992 Houston, TX  Aug. 17-20 New York, NY  July 13-16
1988 New Orleans, LA  Aug. 15-18 Atlanta, GA  July 18-21
1984 Dallas, TX San Francisco, CA
1980 Detroit, MI New York, NY
1976 Kansas City, MO New York, NY
1972 Miami Beach, FL Miami Beach, FL
1968 Miami Beach, FL Chicago, IL
1964 San Francisco, CA Atlantic City, NJ
1960 Chicago, IL Los Angeles, CA

H.R. 2019 - Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act [House passed Dec. 11, 2013, Senate passed March 11, 2014, became law on April 3, 2014] -"Amends the Internal Revenue Code to terminate the entitlement of any major or minor political party to a payment from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund for a presidential nominating convention. Transfers amounts in each account maintained for such purpose for the national committee of a party to a 10-Year Pediatric Research Initiative Fund, making them available only for allocation to national research institutes and national centers through the Common Fund for making grants for pediatric research under this Act.