Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Should we move conventions up?

Quite a few Republicans have complained about the fact that Mitt Romney was essentially hamstrung over summer by campaign finance rules that barred him from using general election money until he was formally nominated in late August.

Over on the home page today, I take a look at whether moving up conventions in the calendar is a good idea and to spoil the ending, yeah, it seems like a pretty good one.

Dead Air
Over the past few cycles, the primary calendar has grown shorter and shorter, as both parties salivate over the idea of settling on a nominee as soon as possible and avoiding intraparty bloodshed. Thus, presidential primaries that used to extend into summer are now effectively resolved much earlier.

James Richardson, vice-president of the political consulting firm Hynes Communications and a veteran of Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign, points out that this truncation creates “dead air” between the conclusion of the primary and the onset of the general election.

“At best, any interruption in that process is a lost opportunity; at worst, a bruising summer of unreturned volleys,” Richardson notes.

Unfortunately for Republicans, Romney was plagued by that “bruising summer of unreturned volleys” after effectively clinching the nomination in April. For the Obama campaign, it was a lively time of unloading attack ad after attack ad, but as already noted, Romney had to essentially go dead during those months.

But moving up the conventions would facilitate a quicker, more seamless transition from the primaries to the general election.
Lengthy campaigns are better campaigns!

To many, that’s not only blasphemous, it’s also the exact opposite of what any reform should look like. Long campaigns can highlight the deep political fractures in society, freeze the normal machinations of the congressional and business worlds as politics takes primacy, and worse, turn everyone’s Facebook walls into a perpetual canvas for partisan acrimony.

But there’s also an upside to a longer general election season that’s ushered in by earlier conventions. Professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, notes that after the late August conventions, voters only learn about candidates in “short, calibrated bursts” that “rush the learning process and overly concentrate it.”

That means every speech, every day, every sliver of news takes graduated, disproportionate meaning in a short general election season. For example, one bad, 90 minute debate in Denver can nearly mean the undoing of a president who’s served four years and wants another four. A hurricane can blow in another weekend, the president can take a tour of rubble, and suddenly, 42 percent of voters call the episode an important factor in their votes. That’s not to say that a bad debate or the solid handling of a hurricane should be meaningless. But should they really decide the next four years?

“It’s too much at once,” Sabato notes of the truncated general election season, “making it difficult to absorb the import of one conclave before we move to the next.”

If conventions were held earlier, the public would theoretically tune into the race earlier and benefit from more points of data and a more thorough absorption of who the candidates are and what they would do.   

Matt Beynon, the president of Madison Strategic Ventures and a veteran of Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, notes that earlier conventions could help excise the dreaded “silly season” of summer where minor gaffes can turn politicos into frothing wolves on Twitter and other social mediums dedicated to the hyper minutia.

“There is a psychological shift in a campaign to greater seriousness and imperative after the conventions, and the earlier that can happen, the better for the entire process,” Beynon says.

Having said that, there’s still no guarantee that earlier conventions would necessarily change the substance of a general election season that’s grown increasingly banal and trivial.

Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth University, acknowledges the financial benefits that earlier conventions might bring candidates, but worries that moving the conventions forward might “reduce their informational role.”

That brings up a good question. Do voters pay attention to conventions simply because they’re conventions and a traditional way to learn about the candidates, unfiltered by the media, or do they pay attention to the conventions because of their immediacy and proximity to Election Day?

After all, it’s probably safe to say that no one would watch a convention held one year before an election. But what about a convention in late June — five months before the election?

Ultimately, however preferable it might be to move the conventions, it would need the consent of both parties, and in politics — more than perhaps anywhere else — saying and actually doing things are entirely different things.