This week, the Republicans hold their national convention, followed by the Democratic National Convention next week. After months of debates and grandstanding, both parties’ presidential candidates will be set in stone. That’s just the beginning of the fun, though. Here’s what goes down at these conventions.
Conventions Are For Picking Nominees and Rallying the Party
In the simplest terms, a political convention is where each party gets together to pick their nominee for president. Since both major political parties use a series of primaries to let voters have their input on this process, the convention itself is largely a formality. At this point, it’s all but set in stone that Hillary Clinton will represent Democrats and Donald Trump will represent Republicans on the ballot in November.
Of course, nominating a candidate that’s already decided doesn’t account for a four day convention. The parties will also hold meetings and discussions to hash out their party’s platform and energize their voting base. The platform is made up of key issues and objectives (often called “planks”) that the party is working towards. You can find the current Republican platform here and the Democratic platform here.
The party platforms aren’t quite as important as they sound. In the days before nominees were picked with primaries, the party platform served as a bar by which a nominee could be measured. A candidate that didn’t adhere to the platform would be unlikely to be nominated. These days, this obviously isn’t the case, since both current nominees won by campaigning to voters directly. It’s still worth paying attention to any new changes to your party’s platform (e.g, the RNC adding porn as a public health crisis to their party platform) to see where its leadership is heading, but these days individual politicians are more free to split from their party on certain topics.
Finally, there are a lot of speeches. Current and past presidents traditionally speak. At the Democratic convention next week, both President Obama and former President Clinton will give speeches. At the Republican convention this week, no former presidents will speak, but we will hear from Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as Trump’s former primary rivals Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Sometimes, a speaking role at conventions can lead to much bigger political futures down the road.
If you’re getting the idea that no big changes or decisions happen at a convention, you’re kind of right. Conventions mattered a lot more in the past. They used to be where party leaders decided amongst themselves who would be a nominee, and presented that nominee and their qualifications to the voting public to be measured in the general election. Now, they’re used to gain attention for their issues and rally their base, but it’s unlikely that any major shakeups will occur.
What Happens at the Convention, and What Could Have Happened This Year
The specific process for nominating a candidate differs slightly between the two major parties. Primaries and caucuses are held in each state so everyone can vote on who they think should be nominated for president. The results of these primaries give a candidate a certain number of pledged delegates. During the first (and usually only) round of voting, pledged delegates are required to vote for the candidate that their state voted for.
In the Republican party, that’s more or less the entire process. If a candidate gets enough pledged delegates, they win the nomination, end of story. In the Democratic party, however, there are also superdelegates. These delegates include all sitting Democratic members of congress and governors, as well as other distinguished party members. Superdelegates are not bound to any candidate and are free to vote for who they wish, though it’s rare for superdelegates to go against the popular vote.
Despite a year of controversial candidates and polarizing conflict, these conventions are likely to go down in a predictable way. However, the nuance in convention rules can affect the nomination process. Here’s how complicated these conventions can get, and how complicated this year’s could have been:
- Republicans tried to unbind delegates before nominating Trump: Donald Trump isn’t exactly a unifying force within the Republican party. Last week, some members of the party tried to pass a clause that would give delegates the option to vote with their conscience, rather than the will of the voters they represent, if they objected strongly to the candidate. This measure was defeated on Thursday of last week.
- Some Sanders supporters hoped superdelegates would switch their votes:For nearly the entire race, Clinton held a strong lead due to pledged superdelegates. These votes can switch at any time, so some Sanders supporters hoped that the superdelegates would swing the race. While Clinton doesn’t currently win the delegate count on pledged delegates alone, her lead is high enough that superdelegates face a huge risk if they chose to switch their votes. That aside, Sanders has withdrawn his candidacy and endorsed Clinton anyway, so the issue is moot.
- Both parties almost had brokered or contested conventions: If a candidate can’t get enough delegates to secure a nomination, both parties can go to a second round of voting to pick a nominee. These involve a lot of deal-making between party members and can be dramatic for voters watching from home. However, a brokered convention hasn’t happened since 1952. With Trump claiming the necessary majority of delegates, and Bernie Sanders endorsing Hillary Clinton, these scenarios are increasingly unlikely.
After all the tumult earlier in the year and during the debates, it finally looks like the conventions for both parties will proceed uneventfully. However, being unsurprising isn’t the same as being ideal. If you’re unhappy with how the nomination process has gone this year (and there are plenty of reasons to feel that way on both sides of the aisle), get involved and push for changes in the general election, your local government, or the next election cycle. Most of the rules and procedures that determine how elections go down get started years in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute to start paying attention to politics.
Now It’s On to the General Election
Once the conventions are over, it’s time to focus on the general election, and the all-too important issue of who’ll take the White House, and with it the right to nominate Supreme Court Justices, sign executive orders and legislation, and in general be the chief executive of the United States. If you’re not registered to vote, get registered now. If you’re not familiar with the presidential nominees, start researching them now and get informed.
Also, don’t forget that you’re voting for more than just the President this November. Look up your congressional representatives online, find out which ones are up for re-election, and research the people running this year. That doesn’t even include local ballot initiatives, state and county officials, races, governors, and representatives, even local sheriffs, judges, and county clerks—this fall is likely to be a packed ballot, with implications much closer to your home the White House.
As for the conventions, well for most of us, they’re less of an event and more of a call to action. There will be tons of speeches, some embarrassing gaffes, some controversial statements, and lots of news, to pay attention to, but the outcome is likely already decided. That means there are four months left before the election in November: plenty of time for you to make an informed decision.