Political Conventions Will Likely Never Be The Same The pandemic forced this years conventions to go virtual. That won't be the end of the change, as future gatherings shift from the age of television to the world of social media and viral moments.
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Political Conventions Will Likely Never Be The Same

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Political Conventions Will Likely Never Be The Same

Political Conventions Will Likely Never Be The Same

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Political conventions are a tradition dating back to the 1800s in this country. But this time, of course, it's different. Democrats are gathering virtually next week with the Republicans to follow virtually the following week. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been wondering whether conventions will ever be the same again. Here's Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Every election season, the questions reemerge. Will this be the year for a brokered convention with a dramatic battle for delegates on the floor? It's long been the stuff of movies and television. In this episode of NBC's "The West Wing," we see the backroom jockeying over the most mundane details.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WEST WING")

JOHN SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) Please clear your speeches four hours before...

JOSHUA MALINA: (As Will Bailey) We have to clear our speeches?

SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) She approves everything that goes on air until we have a nominee.

MALINA: (As Will Bailey) What about our introductory videos? You going to censor those, too?

SPENCER: (As Leo McGarry) No because there aren't going to be any.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: (As Annabeth Schott) Network's hate them. It's a free ad for your candidates.

GONYEA: But reality has a way of pouring cold water on such storytelling. To find a convention that actually went beyond the first ballot in choosing a nominee, you need to go way back to 1952.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: The convention really goes wild as Gov. Schricker of Indiana nominates his fellow Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, dark horse of the convention, who steadfastly refused to advance his candidacy.

GONYEA: That clip is from an old Universal Newsreel filmed as Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson needed three rounds of voting to secure the Democratic nomination. There's another reason 1952 is significant. For the first time, conventions were live on television from coast to coast. It was a new tool to reach a huge audience. Then, in 1960, the first candidate to fully embrace the age of television...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age; to the stout in spirit, regardless of party...

GONYEA: That's John F. Kennedy accepting the Democratic nomination. But as TV took over, convention planners didn't always fully appreciate that the cameras would also capture conflict, like at the GOP convention of 1964. Sen. Barry Goldwater was the nominee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRY GOLDWATER: I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: That line was a sharp rebuke to an earlier convention speech from Goldwater rival Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal Republican governor of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON ROCKEFELLER: The Republican Party should reject extremism from either the left or the right.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: Four years later, Democrats had their own epic and messy internal battles at a convention, where the enduring images are of violent clashes outside between anti-war protesters and Chicago police. That kind of disruption hasn't been seen since. Still, conventions remain a place for new faces on the political scene to emerge. In 2004, it was a state senator from Illinois...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: ...The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

GONYEA: ...And in '08, a little-known GOP governor...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH PALIN: I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull - lipstick.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: As for the complaints that conventions have become too choreographed, too scripted - well, there are still moments that backfire. Witness Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984 and a promise that would haunt his campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALTER MONDALE: Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.

GONYEA: And how about the 2012 Republican convention when surprise guest actor-director Clint Eastwood pretended to interview President Obama, represented by an empty chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINT EASTWOOD: What do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that - can't do that to himself.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: It did not go over well. Doug Heye is a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He's one who is ready to scrap the ritual of the big multiday gatherings.

DOUG HEYE: Conventions haven't changed in practically 40 years. They've become four nights of a big, bloated system that just doesn't get the attention that it used to.

GONYEA: Heye says the pandemic gives everyone a reason to rethink how these things are done.

HEYE: I think it'd be almost impossible for a party to say, we want to go back to exactly what we did in 2016. And this was just a blip. You're going to evolve from this one way or another. The question is how.

GONYEA: The parties were already trying to adapt to a new viewing audience to use viral moments in the way JFK embraced TV. Leah Daughtry ran two conventions for the Democrats, in 2008 and in '16. She says conventions do still answer some core questions for voters.

LEAH DAUGHTRY: What are the party's values? How is this nominee going to take us further? How are we planning to move the nation?

GONYEA: Daughtry predicts they will be shortened starting in 2024, maybe to just two days. And, she says, even if TV networks cover them less, they still have a great value for the party.

DAUGHTRY: I don't know that conventions are dead. They may be reformed and reformatted, but that kind of energy of several thousand people - you and your closest thousand friends in the hall, won't go away.

GONYEA: But it does feel like we're closing the door on a certain kind of convention. And if the template for the future is still unknown, it seems pretty certain that what we'll see at the 2020 conventions will not be it.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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