Remember last winter when some smart people were sufficiently spooked by what seemed like a stalemate in the Republican presidential race to predict a brokered convention? Of course, that didn’t happen. But even after it became clear early on that Mitt Romney was going to be the nominee, we still heard fearsome premonitions of how Ron Paul’s supporters were going to disrupt the convention. While the media will be keeping an eye on Paul’s band of pledged delegates in Tampa, the notion that they have the ability to hijack Romney’s party turns out to be another myth. Indeed, with Nebraska, the last state to select its delegates, holding its state convention this past weekend, it became clear Paul’s forces would not even be able to place his name in nomination.
As Politico reports, by failing to win a plurality of the delegates picked at the Nebraska GOP conclave, Paul won’t have effective control of at least five delegations in Tampa, which is the minimum required for being allowed to place a candidate’s name before the convention even as a symbolic gesture. That may strike some as unfair considering that although Paul won only 158 delegates, he still got a lot of primary votes. But the point is such expectations are the product of a bygone era. National political conventions stopped being deliberative bodies a couple of generations ago. The parties have crafted rules that not only make a deadlock highly unlikely; they also are geared toward squelching symbolic or protest candidacies. That makes it hard for outliers to disrupt the nominee’s parties but has also had the ancillary effect of rendering the conventions unwatchable and unimportant.
The Broadway revival of the Gore Vidal play “The Best Man” may feed on nostalgia for the era when national conventions not only picked presidents but also were the greatest political show on earth. But the last convention that convened with the identity of the nominee still in doubt was 1976, when Gerald Ford edged out Ronald Reagan for the GOP nod. Since then, they have become nothing more than infomercials for the nominee. Where once all the networks covered them from gavel to gavel, now even the cable news networks don’t show every speech.
As for the party platforms, once the cause of bitter debates and much drama, nobody reads or cares about them. The only interest will be to see if the Obama or Romney camps are negligent and allow party activists to slip in items that could embarrass the candidates.
If anything, the next presidential go round will be even less likely to produce convention excitement. Fears about a Republican deadlock in 2012 were produced by new rules that mandated proportional allocation of delegates. Don’t be surprised if such rules are eliminated in 2016 whether or not Romney is running for re-election then.
Which brings us back to the threat of radical libertarians disrupting the GOP convention on behalf of Ron Paul. Should Paul be given a speaking slot, you can bet he will say things that will embarrass the party and its nominee. And it is always possible for Paul’s delegates to do something to spoil Romney’s big moment, especially if they feel they are being slighted. Expect Romney’s stage-managed show to be carried off in a way to minimize that threat, as they know the media is desperate to hype any such hijinks into a big story.
But the problem with this whole discussion is that the conventions simply are not that important anymore. Both Obama and Romney may get some sort of a post-convention bounce in the polls but expect it to be smaller than other candidates have gotten in the past. The full bore campaigning we are seeing this summer — something that didn’t happen decades ago — shows the old rhythms of presidential election year campaigns in which the conventions were the highlight are as outdated as “The Best Man.” Which means that even if the ragtag band of delegates supporting a man who can’t even have his name put before the convention misbehave, it will be meaningless.