Eyewitness View: Mason Scholar Says National Party Conventions More Polished Than They Used to Be

Posted: September 17, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Richard Norton Smith
Richard Norton Smith

You couldn’t keep presidential historian and Mason scholar-in-residence Richard Norton Smith away from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions — even if their back-to-back lineup was exhausting.

When he wasn’t serving as a commentator for PBS’s convention coverage, Smith spent his time at the two conventions soaking in all the different strategies and mood shifts and making notes about the differences in the two parties’ approaches.

Historically speaking, Smith says conventions used to be places to hammer out the party’s platform — meetings with funny hats, angry partisans and lively conversations. In 1924 the Democrats met in New York and took 17 days and 103 ballots to nominate a candidate. Today, candidates are chosen way before the official conventions, and the events themselves are much more polished and scripted — leaving something to be desired in some cases.

“Most people I talked to said [the conventions] were kind of bland,” he says. Though there may be some “soap operas” enhanced by media coverage, Smith says for the most part today’s conventions are the party’s chance to put its best face on and woo its followers.

However, although the conventions may be similarly polished and professional in appearance, Smith says the feel of the two were vastly different.

“It’s like night and day,” he says. “The crowds look different, dress different and obviously have vastly different outlooks. You would think Denver and Saint Paul were on two different planets.”

So which convention had more success? Smith would give a nod to the Republicans, who he thinks had a convention that was more transforming and helped to change the mood and subject of the party.

“Their stakes were higher coming in because they were trailing. But they managed to make it about the future, not the past, and inject a sense of excitement.”

By picking such a controversial and unknown vice presidential nominee in Sarah Palin, the Republicans, Smith points out, maximized strategy.

“I can’t remember a vice president selection that altered the conventional wisdom as much as this did. The VP never overshadows the presidential nominee.”

Democrats, however, might not need to worry too much.

“The fundamental issues still favor the Democrats,” says Smith. “It will be interesting to see how it all plays out in November.”

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