Political conventions evolve as technology advances

The Republican National Convention gets underway Monday, with the Democratic version set to begin a week from now. What both events have in common is the fact that the respective nominees are already known to a high degree of probability. So why have these conventions at all?

According to presidential historian Tevi Troy, the conventions began because of a lack of technology. “Conventions began precisely because there was no alternative to face-to-face meetings,” he writes in The Washington Post. “Party leaders could not communicate quickly or easily in an era of horse-delivered missives, so they needed a gathering place to make decisions, including who would serve as the nominee.”

Over time, technology advanced. “Abraham Lincoln did not attend the 1860 GOP convention but stayed in touch via telegraph,” Troy writes.

Emerging technology initially promoted a top-down, hierarchical approach to politics at conventions. Troy notes that John F. Kennedy’s team at the 1960 Democratic convention employed walkie-talkies, but only floor managers had them, and rank-and-file delegates were at a communications disadvantage. In the age of cellphones, that’s obviously no longer the case.

Troy writes, “…social media offers insurgents and party favorites alike the ability not only to gauge support but also to reach out directly to delegates to make the case for a favored candidate or cause.” He adds, “The upshot is that smartphones and social media may very well exacerbate floor fights, as warring party factions use their ability to connect directly with delegates to try to lure candidates to their preferred positions.”

What of the future? “Cord-cutting…is reducing the number of people watching cable television as young people obtain political news from other sources, including late-night comedy,” Troy writes. “In response, parties will have to use new technologies to design convention events that target specific viewing demographics.”

Troy looks forward to innovations such as real-time fact-checking. He concludes, “As long as technology continues to evolve, conventions will as well.”

You might also want to look at Jill Lepore’s detailed history of conventions in The New Yorker. “The Presidential-nominating Convention is an American invention,” she writes. “It is the product of a failure of the Constitution. Kings are born; Presidents are elected. How? This is a math problem and it’s a political problem, and it’s been solved but never resolved.”

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