The quadrennial tradition of a national political convention, dating back to 1832 when the first Democratic Convention was held with Andrew Jackson as the party’s nominee, has ended, felled by coronavirus. Both conventions will be almost entirely virtual this year.
Franklin Roosevelt was the first nominee of any party to formally accept a party’s nomination in person at a convention by giving an acceptance speech. This year, neither Joe Biden nor his vice presidential pick will deliver their convention speeches from the Democratic National Convention’s “site” in Milwaukee. There will be no major speeches given there either. Speaking of major convention addresses, another first came in 1976 when Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas was the first woman and first African American to deliver a major party keynote convention address.
The public doesn’t seem to mind seeing the tradition end, at least for this year. Fifty-five percent in a late July online Economist/YouGov survey said the Democratic and Republican Conventions should be cancelled due to coronavirus, with a quarter saying they should go on as planned. Republicans were split, 41 to 41 percent, about holding the events, while the overwhelming majority of Democrats, 77 percent, said they should be cancelled.
As far as we know at this writing, we won’t see a survey of the convention delegates themselves. The 1968 convention was the last convention of the old order when the delegates were mostly party and public officials, contributors, and others who were being thanked for their service to their party. But after the upheavals of 1968, Democrats were determined to make the delegates more representative of the party’s rank and file. Sensing an opportunity, Warren Mitofsky and Marty Plissner of CBS News decided to survey the convention delegates, which they continued to do for 40 years in every presidential election through 2008. They told us about the professions of the delegates, their levels of education, their religions, if they were members of a union, and other demographic information.
Some of the changes in the delegate ranks were dramatic. In 1968, for example, 13 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention were women; four years later in 1972, 40 percent were, and by 1980, 49 percent were women. In the last CBS delegate survey from 2008, the composition of Democratic delegates was still 49 percent female. It is a safe bet it is a much larger share now.
This survey work also enabled researchers to look at how delegates were different from rank-and-file partisans. Among Democrats, delegates leaned more to the left than rank-and-file Democrats, and they leaned considerably to the left of the population as a whole. The pattern was reversed for the GOP, with Republican delegates being to the right of rank-and-file Republicans and also the nation as a whole. The delegates were “purer” representatives of their party. For a trip down memory lane, it is worth taking a look at these delegate surveys. AEI is one of the repositories of the CBS data on the delegates to both the Democratic and Republican conventions.
Four years ago, the team at AEI’s Political Corner also posted a compilation of historical information about both conventions. You can find those posts here.
This article by Karlyn Bowman first appeared in August 2020 on the AEI Ideas Blog.