Covid-19 forced Democrats and Republicans to rethink how they will hold their political conventions this summer. Both will be mostly virtual affairs, eliminating the handshakes and personal interactions that have shaped the parties for nearly 200 years. In this way, the pandemic is accelerating an evolution that has been in motion for decades. Events that once featured smoke-filled rooms, high drama and unpredictable outcomes are now carefully produced spectacles designed for sending prepackaged messages to voters.
The political conventions started in 1831 with the Anti-Masonic Party's meeting in a Baltimore saloon. The Democratic Party held its first convention in 1832—in the same Baltimore saloon. The absence of instantaneous communications meant that face-to-face meetings were required for difficult decisions like choosing a nominee or deciding on a party platform.
As communications technologies improved, conventions became sites for important choices. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln didn't attend the Republican convention in Chicago but learned from a kid running from the telegraph office that he had received the nomination on the third ballot. In 1912, in a Democratic nomination contest that went 46 ballots, an absent Woodrow Wilson kept up to date via telephone.
With the advent of radio, party leaders realized that conventions could broadcast a party's message to the nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt was an early master of this capability. Long before his famous use of "Fireside Chats" as president, Roosevelt directed his convention speeches to the wider listening world rather than just the assembled crowd. At the 1924 and 1928 Democratic conventions, Roosevelt captivated the nation with speeches designed for the radio audience, including the famous 1924 speech that introduced Wordsworth's phrase "happy warrior" to American politics.
Even as conventions gained an ability to broadcast party messages nationwide, they retained their role as decision-making conclaves. That 1924 Democratic convention was raucous, taking 103 ballots to settle on John W. Davis as its presidential candidate. The convention was nicknamed the Klan-bake, as 20,000 Klansmen gathered nearby in support of William McAdoo over New York Gov. Al Smith. Neither man won. In a convention marred by cursing and fistfights, Democrats found a compromise between the Catholic Smith—controversial at the time—and McAdoo, who didn't back the Klan but refused to repudiate its support.
The conventions maintained these roles into the television age. In 1976, Ronald Reagan made a late push in the GOP primaries and came to the convention within striking distance of President Gerald Ford. This, too, was a boisterous affair, as the Reagan forces tried but failed to overcome Ford. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who supported Ford, fumed at Reagan backers who tore out the New York delegation's telephone. In those pre-cellphone days, delegation telephones were essential for communication with campaign leadership. Reporter Ann Compton recalled that "you couldn't even walk over to another delegation. So that shows just the extent to which tempers flared."
The floor fight was contentious, but what happened afterward demonstrated the benefits of the in-person convention. A victorious Ford gave Reagan an opportunity to speak. Reagan gave a short and powerful speech that both praised Ford's "kindness and generosity" and made a strong case for supporting the Republican ticket. Former Eisenhower and Nixon aide Steve Hess remembered it as "a marvelous little speech, which pretty much declared him as the next Republican candidate." It was a spontaneous moment of reconciliation, one unlikely to happen today.
That was the last closely contested convention. Conventions have since become increasingly scripted affairs. The primary process now brings the front-runner to the convention with an insurmountable delegate lead, eliminating the need for multiple ballots. Clinching the nomination in advance allows the presumptive nominee's campaign operation to control the flow of the convention and the message sent to the wider world. For all the drama of past conventions, today's are mostly drama-free.
There are good public-health reasons for a virtual convention in 2020. But this year's completion of the transition of conventions, from decision-making events to technology-enabled propaganda sessions, may be taking away an element of what holds parties together. Conventions were designed for hashing out intraparty differences. They no longer serve that function in the same way. Yet parties may find that if they don't resolve their internal disagreements in person, they'll reappear in party splits if the nominee loses or intra-administration infighting if he wins. Either way, parties may regret no longer having these opportunities to settle differences and bring about reconciliation among former opponents.