Behind the balloons: political consultants and the national nominating Conventions
At the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, it took 46 ballots for New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson’s supporters to break a deadlock and wrestle the nomination away from fellow contenders, U.S. House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri, U.S. Rep. Oscar Underwood, Ala., and Gov. Judson Harmon, Ohio.
In 1924, after nine days of stalemate, delegates at the Democratic convention in New York voted 103 times before Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis clinched the nomination as a compromise candidate between New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith and William G. McAdoo, Wilson’s treasury secretary.
These episodes occurred during the heyday of nominating conventions, when fat cats in smoke-filled rooms did battle over contenders and the nomination was not a foregone conclusion. But reforms in the nomination process to make it more inclusive–including the rapid growth in direct primaries–have stripped controlover the nomination away from the party elite. In more recent presidential election cycles, nominations have rarely been contested, and the conventions are no longer the setting for intense battles over the nomination or other key political decisions.
While conventions continue to play an official role in the process of nominee selection and platform adoption, their function is largely ritualistic. Conventions today are more like giant pep rallies for the parties rather than a venue for serious party proceedings. Contemporary conventions are staged primarily as mega-media events designed to electrify the party faithful and to woo undecided voters by dazzling them.
Scholars have demonstrated that support for the party’s nominee is boosted immediately after the convention, and the prevailing belief seems to be the bigger and better the convention, the bigger the boost. Elaborate effort–and resources–are now lavished on the conventions by party leaders to orchestrate, anticipate, plan, schedule, rehearse, time and script every small detail of every minute of the convention, especially those proceedings that will be aired during prime time.
Nothing is left to chance, and there is no room to stray from the script.
All of this doesn’t come cheap. Party spending on nominating conventions has increased dramatically over the past 25 years. Consider that in 1980, according to a report produced by the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), Republicans raised a total of $10.3 million in public and private contributions to host their convention in Detroit. Democrats collected $12.8 million for their convention in New York City in the same year. In 2004, Republicans are expected to raise and spend $106 million for their New York City convention. An estimated $64.5 million is expected to be spent for the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.
Nor does all of this come easy. The design and execution of conventions as massive media events has required party organizations to solicit the expertise of media and communications professionals and specialists. Increasingly the parties must turn to political consultants, image specialists, strategists and television production experts to put on the best show possible without diluting key party messages.
“It’s very simple,” said Republican convention veteran Bill Greener, who has worked on every convention since 1984. “If it’s good TV, people will watch it. If not, they won’t.”
“The seachange occurred in 1972 when [Republican National Convention Manager Bill] Timmons organized the convention to renominate incumbent Richard Nixon with extraordinary precision,” Greener added. “We hadn’t seen anything like it before. Since then, the move toward planning conventions as TV events continues. There is a greater need for specialists.”
Don Fowler, CEO of the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta and Democratic National Committee chairman in 1995-1996, described how critical he felt it was to find talent with expertise in producing live events for television.
“Politicians are good at many things,” Fowler said. “But not necessarily TV production.
“In 1988, I went to Hollywood and hired Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion [veteran producers and directors] to help produce the convention. They understood the techniques of live TV production. This had never been done before.”
Smith and Hemion went on to help orchestrate the Democratic conventions in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
Still, party leaders’ objectives and the media’s priorities do not always overlap perfectly. Understanding that the media will be driven to analyze, dissect, even challenge the party’s message, party operatives must find ways to effectively manage and control the flow of information in ways that maximize favorable coverage. Parties must also work with the media to stage high-quality events that appeal to viewers and thus compete with popular television programming alternatives.
The networks are not especially fond of the pre-packaged, low-excitement convention programs the parties prepare, however, and parties enter into heated negotiations with the networks over coverage.
“We beg a lot,” said Fowler, adding that convention managers are increasingly attentive to the local and regional stations that report on the conventions in addition to the networks. Specialists help the parties to navigate these negotiations.
Tom C. Korologos, a Republican operative who was involved in planning every convention between 1972 and 2000, agreed.
“There is more and more consultation with public affairs professionals,” he said. “We are increasingly preoccupied with the overarching question: ‘How’s this going to look on television?’ We turn to the media and entertainment guys more and more,” he added.
Strategists work closely with media and communications consultants to present the right messages in the most compelling ways.
“The media experts work in tandem with pollsters, image consultants, issue development professionals, speech writers, speech coaches and technical experts to test and develop coherent, high-impact messages throughout the duration of the convention,” Fowler said.
While it is difficult to quantify and document the degree of growth in the role consultants and media professionals play at the conventions, consider CFI reports that Republicans spent $1.6 million for media and public relations-related support (excluding convention facility and production costs) in 2000, and Democrats spent $2.1 million. Korologos estimates that the number of communications experts he has worked with in planning Republican conventions has increased five to six times since his first convention in 1972.
“The party leadership–together with the nominee–still make the final convention decisions,” he said, “But the communications specialists now have a bigger say.”
Experts seem to agree that the conventions remain political events even as they have come to be dominated by media considerations.
“The presentation may have changed,” Greener said. “But not the content. The messengers may be different even though the message is the same.”
He explained that image consultants have advised the parties to showcase more minorities and women at the podium at key times and, if the party can’t avoid them entirely, to permit controversial or unpopular speakers to speak at odd times.
“We in the party have learned a great deal from the consultants,” Korologos said. “We know how to do this stuff better now thanks to them.”
Technology is driving many of these developments.
“Conventions have become increasingly institutionalized and professionalized,” Fowler observed. Video walls, chat rooms, streaming video and other communications technology developments generate even greater needs for technical expertise. “It gets more sophisticated with each convention. It appears that a cottage industry of political and media consultants who specialize in conventions is emerging.”
Said Korologos, “Conventions bring out the worst in everybody and the best in a few–which is why the few run them. It’s the same cast of characters every four years.”
Costas Panagopoulos is executive director of the Political Campaign Management Program in the Department of Politics at New York University and a contributor at Campaigns & Elections.
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