Holding earlier political conventions an option for both Dems, GOP in 2016

After Mitt Romney’s loss on Election Day, Republicans began to float suggestions on how their party could capture the White House in 2016.

One, from GOP strategist Karl Rove, was to hold an earlier nominating convention. The idea seems to have struck a chord with political types from both parties.

Here are a few reasons why the idea might catch on.

A fairer fight

Generally, candidates for president raise two pots of money — one for their primary battle and one for the general-election race.

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The catch is that they can’t spend their general-election funds until they’re formally crowned as their party’s nominee at the convention.

Even though he effectively clinched the nomination in April, Romney had to wait until he was formally nominated in late August to begin using his formidable general-election war chest. Until then, he had to use leftover money from his primary campaign to wage war with President Obama.

Meanwhile, Obama didn’t have a meaningful primary opponent, so he was able to use any funds at his disposal to attack Romney with ads during the spring and summer.

That election-law quirk didn’t just tie one hand behind Romney’s back: It shackled his feet and gagged his mouth, too. According to a Washington Post report, Obama had already outspent Romney in Ohio, $22 million to $6.5 million, and in Florida, $17 million to $2 million, by the time July rolled around. Obama went on to win both states.

Given that parties usually know their nominees relatively early in an election year, moving up the convention date would give the contender a chance to access his or her general-election funds quicker.

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 intra-party 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." 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 workings of the congressional and business worlds as politics takes primacy and, worse, turn everyone’s Facebook wall 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 it 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 media dedicated to hyper-minutiae.

“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.