Pros and cons of political conventions

The Democratic National Convention officially kicks off tonight in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There will be no balloon drops, no in-person roll call, no delegates chanting on the arena floor and enthusiastically waving placards bearing their state’s name. Instead, those delegates will be scattered around the country, with primetime speakers joining via video conference. It’s all raising the question: Should the U.S. even have these political party conventions?

“They play an incredibly important role helping to build party unity and educate the American public,” says Emily Baer, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “Conventions were originally conceived of as a way to bridge geographic and sectional differences between different factions within the party … that rare moment where everyone can come together and realize that they have more that unites them than divides them.”

Dave Cieslewicz, former Democratic mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, says the in-person political conventions will probably resume once the U.S. gets through the coronavirus pandemic. 

He says he was a delegate to conventions in 2004 and 2008. “I had a great time … but the truth is I didn't do anything.”

Cieslewicz explains that he was a full delegate but never asked to vote on anything — the candidates for president and vice president were already selected, and the party platform was already adopted. 

“I understood why I was there — to be backdrop for the television coverage of the primetime speeches. That was my purpose in being there,” he says. “And these things are very expensive. So the convention in Milwaukee, had it actually happened in person, would cost about $70 million. That money is almost all coming from large corporations and major donors and lobbyists, who are paying for access to powerful politicians.”