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Political Conventions Aim to Dazzle

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 12 June 2012
People holding up political signs (Smithsonian Institution)

Delegates at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, hold up signs in support of presidential candidate John McCain.

Washington — During the U.S. Democratic and Republican national conventions this summer, thousands of delegates will be waving American flags and signs bearing the name of their party’s candidate for president. It will be a stirring sight.

But while the excitement on the convention floor is genuine, virtually every moment of the event is scripted and choreographed to have maximum impact on television, computer and smartphone screens.

“You put things in people’s hands that they can wave and participate with,” said William L. Bird, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. “The people who manage the stagecraft of the convention — by that I mean what happens on the floor — pay very close attention to this.”

Since 1984, Bird has attended every national nominating convention to collect signs, buttons and hats for the Smithsonian’s collection of political ephemera.

Nationwide television coverage of conventions isn’t new — it started in 1952 — but the events have become increasingly stage-managed, Bird said.

“You will never see a blank piece of card stock come into the convention hall; it’s always printed on both sides,” he said. “The last thing they want is somebody making their own sign.”

The parties do not allow delegates to bring their own signs into the hall, he said. Some signs might appear to be homemade, but they almost certainly were created by young volunteers who were given a list of preapproved slogans to paint.

The biggest events and most prominent speakers are scheduled for prime-time viewing on television, and when a prominent speaker steps up to the podium, the appropriate signs are brought out. The speaker can appear to be “floating on a sea of signs,” Bird said.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, CONVENTION

A national political convention has to accomplish certain things, writes David Mark of Politico, a Washington-based news outlet: adopting a party platform (a set of principles) and formally nominating candidates for president and vice president. “The rest of the usual convention stagecraft — acceptance speeches, keynote addresses, and even the traditional roll call vote — are optional bits of political theater.”

The conventions are held a few months before the presidential election, which will be November 6 this year. Voting at conventions is done by delegates from each state.

“In the past, the national convention served as a decisionmaking body, actually determining the party's nominee,” according to Eric Appleman, producer of the nonpartisan website Democracy in Action. “One could argue that modern-day conventions are little more than four-day advertisements for the political parties.”

There have been two major changes in recent decades, Appleman said. First, the presidential nominee is usually known months before the convention because states hold binding primary elections that determine how their delegates will vote. And second, “conventions have become tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.”

Conventions are important to the political parties, he said, because they energize party activists for the fall campaign, “and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a ‘convention bounce’" — a surge in public support.

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME

The Republican convention will be August 27–30 in Tampa, Florida, followed by the Democratic convention September 3–6 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bird and his Smithsonian colleague Harry Rubenstein will be at both, looking for items for the National Museum of American History’s political history collection.

Bird particularly likes the hats worn by some delegates to identify their home states. There are no restrictions on hats, shirts and buttons like there are on signage, he said. “Your personal getup is yours. It’s like the last bastion of free and honest, if not over-the-top, expression.”

One prized hat in the Smithsonian collection was worn by a New Mexico delegate to the 2004 Democratic convention. It is a woman’s red felt, broad-brimmed hat, with perhaps 100 little chili peppers hanging from the brim.

Unfortunately some hats get away, Bird admitted. He remembered a young woman at the 2004 Republican convention who was wearing a straw hat her mother had made. “On top of it was a piece of gray Styrofoam that looked like a piece of granite and was surrounded by green-cellophane grass. I just fell in love with it,” he said.

The woman was from New Hampshire, which is nicknamed the Granite State. “She just sat there blithely looking on, wearing her hat. It was thoroughly charming,” Bird said. “But I never saw her again.”

See "Two Cities Prepare for Presidential Nominating Conventions."

Woman wearing hat shaped like ear of corn and covered with political buttons (Smithsonian Institution)

A delegate to the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, Colorado, wears a hat in the shape of an ear of corn.