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Why conventions still matter

National party conventions matter, but four-day party conventions have probably outlived their usefulness.

Democrats long ago shrunk their convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week to three days. Isaac is forcing the GOP to do the same in Tampa this week, just as Hurricane Gustav caused the party to scrub the first day of the 2008 convention in Minnesota.

In the end, it won't make any difference, other than some bruised egos among those bumped to lesser speaking slots.

To hear a growing chorus of convention organizers and fundraisers tell it, massive, four-day shows are anachronisms anyway. The amount of money and effort it takes to put on a convention, when the broadcast networks commit only three hours, just isn't worth it.

"Political conventions date back to shortly after this nation's founding, and there's something inherently American about them. People like to watch them," said Ken Jones, president and chief executive of the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee, which was responsible for raising $55 million to put on the convention. "They're an American institution, and we should continue to have them in some form. Their scope and size? That remains to be seen."

Raising money for these events is far harder than at any time in the era of modern conventions.

The rocky economy has made it tough to find individuals and corporations who can donate $1 million, $2 million, $5 million to a host committee, even with those donations being tax deductible. Corporate budgets for marketing, government relations or chairmen's discretionary funds are tighter than even four years ago.

When the host committee fundraising reports come out this year, expect to see that corporations that contributed generously to prior conventions took a pass this year. Nor did the Democrats help Tampa when they announced that no one could give more than $100,000 to their Charlotte convention, effectively capping donations to the GOP show among those who prefer to give equally to both conventions.

The landmark Citizens United ruling, opening the door to unlimited corporate and individual contributions to super PACs, has also complicated the job of funding conventions. If businesses or individuals want to help a presidential nominee, they can do that much more directly with a generous super PAC donation to fund an attack ad.

"It's a really tough ask. Al Austin and Dick Beard and the whole team deserve an enormous amount of credit for how hard they've worked,'' former Gov. Jeb Bush said, referring to the Tampa Bay civic leaders who led the fundraising effort.

Finally, there is growing discomfort with taxpayers footing a big chunk of the bill. Congress spends $50 million on security for each convention, which is not necessarily hard to justify, considering the potential threats. Much harder to justify is the $18 million given directly to both national parties to put on their big shows.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus argues that Congress should loosen campaign finance rules, at least just for conventions, so that the parties can raise unlimited contributions.

"There are a lot of members who don't like the public financing aspect of the party. That's fine; I would agree. But if that's the case, you need to allow the parties to be able to raise soft dollars to pay for the convention," said Priebus, who nonetheless doubts that four-day conventions are doomed.

"I know people are saying that, but I just don't buy that. I think in the end this is an event that is governed by the rules of the party, people take enormous pride in it and see it continuing," Priebus said last week. "Conventions are enormously helpful in telling the story of your nominee. We're running a few things. One, we are putting together an incredible delegate experience. No. 2, we are putting together a four-day commercial telling the Mitt Romney story. And lastly we're highlighting the Tampa Bay area, getting to know a very important community to us, which will benefit us in winning the state of Florida in November."

That said, ignore the pompous pundits this week sniffing about how little political conventions matter, how they're prolonged infomercials with no drama or suspense.

No, we won't be treated to delegate slugfests as in 1952 when supporters of Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower went at it in Chicago. We won't see bitter, open debates about the most pressing issues of the day, as before the Civil War, or the kind of wheeling, dealing and multiple ballots that finally produced nominees such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And yes, we know how this convention story ends Thursday night.

But conventions matter.

We're about to elect the most powerful man in the world at a critical time. There is nothing trivial about both parties spending several days making their case to America for why their vision and nominee is best.

Americans don't view these as meaningless exercises.

In 2008, 38.9 million viewers watched John McCain's acceptance speech, 38.4 million watched Barack Obama, and 37.2 million saw Sarah Palin explain that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick. That's more than watched the season finale of American Idol that year and just shy of the ratings for the record-setting opening ceremonies of the London Olympics this year.

Yes, conventions are scripted, choreographed and mostly predictable, but they do matter.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

Why conventions still matter 08/26/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 26, 2012 9:21pm]
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