What’s a Party Convention?: U.S. Elections Explained

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What I know about government mostly came from my eighth grade Constitution unit. I vaguely recall sharpening my colored pencils and using art and memorization to show the inner workings of the three branches of government. However, it wasn’t until much later, during my second voting election, that I found my place in our “model” democracy. Once Bill Clinton had secured the popular vote in 1996, I called my father to contemplate. “Dad, I don’t know whether I should stay home and watch the Simpsons or go vote for Clinton.” He lectured me as a good father should, reminding me that men had died for my right to vote (if his finger could have come through the receiver, it would have), so I trotted off to my polling place, cast my vote, and rushed back home in time to catch some of Bart’s sophomoric antics.

As an adult, I grew to enjoy a fine political flogging through debate, but really, I just wanted to enjoy a good party at the conventions. Caucuses and primaries might be the political equivalent to the Emmys and Golden Globes, but they roll out the red carpet when they get down to the party conventions to choose Best Candidate.

While I watched and learned, I saw the packed hall of pasty folks in goofy hats. Party conventions were where activist girlfriends snuck in and were arrested, and the place to offer up hot politicians on a podium (did you see 1988’s John F. Kennedy, Jr. speech?). The party conventions give me a final chance to judge my fellow man (and wonder about the woman). It’s where I could rate how well my future Commander-in-Chief might fare while he took a cloudy stance on my issues.

How They Roll Out the Red (and Blue) Carpet
It begins with a Call to Convention, where each party calls their party to gather and select a nominee for president. This is where the amount of delegates is decided upon for each party. Policy says that the party not currently in the White House convenes first and conventions run in large cities for four days toward the end of the summer. This year the parties chose late convention dates in order to fundraise as much capital from donations beforehand. After the convention, the nominees may accept government funds for the general election, but they can’t raise or spend private funds or spend more than $50,000 of their personal resources once they accept these government funds.

The 2008 Democratic National Convention is in Denver from August 25–August 28; the Republican National Convention is in Minneapolis from September 1–4. The Green Party will also hold their convention in Chicago from July 10–13. In the first days of the convention, a temporary chair is chosen, and all of the delegates are seated. A permanent chair is then elected and a platform is chosen. The platform includes planks—or proposals—where items could potentially become public policy but are not necessarily binding.

It isn’t all sweat and swagger during the day, as C-SPAN might have you believe if you can manage to stay awake. On the fourth day, the nominations for president begin. The chair does an alphabetical roll call for each state; each nominate a candidate or defer to the next state. Once the nominations are made and seconded, voting convenes, requiring a simple majority (or ballots, if it comes to that).

The next term of business is to choose the vice-presidential candidate who, according to the 12th amendment, should come from a separate state than the presidential nominee in order to avoid the presidential candidate from attaining a majority electoral vote, and a running mate who could not secure that vote.

But it’s in the evening when the party convention heats up and top players stroll across the stage with their American flag pins and veneered smiles, poised for two minutes of corporate sponsors on either end of their talks. On this fourth night, the keynote address is followed by the formal acceptance speeches from both the President and Vice President nominees, then the nets are pulled, a sea of balloons drops, and out pops the three-month race runners to the party finish line.

2008: How to Avoid a Cat Fight
The latest gossip indicates the potential for a brokered convention, which refers to when there are not enough delegates obtained during the Emmy’s (caucuses) and Golden Globes (primaries) to warrant a front-runner—or one nominee. If no candidate has a majority of delegate votes, the convention is said to be brokered (not broken, although that would be easier to understand) and the nomination will be decided behind closed doors (just as lobbyists and congressman do during the rest of the year) and with further ballots.

This brokered convention can most likely happen to Democrats, but not Republicans, since their party has a proportional representation system—meaning that the percentage of votes they receive will equal the percentage of delegate seats they receive. This is the pivotal point in the run for Best Picture, when the main characters (or super delegates) cast their votes for their candidate, even if it is customary for those candidates who lost during the primaries to urge their delegates to vote for the convention’s nominee.

And the Political Oscar Goes To …
This year’s front-runners, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are currently neck-and-neck, but with the amount of delegates available, it is mathematically impossible for either candidate to move ahead. If this continues, it will become a race for the super delegates to decide, since the Democratic National Committee prevents state Democratic parties from doing what would be the most logical next step—whoever gets the most votes wins.

This will leave it to the final moments of the convention, as the balloons hover and the attendees bite their lips, to see which candidate will take the envelope, and the nomination, which will easily make for the perfect Hollywood ending to this otherwise political affair.


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