‘Capitol Connection’ – Why Do We Hold National Conventions?

September 5, 2012

In about three months, voters will head to the polls on Tuesday, November 6th to choose who will serve as our elected officials in state and federal office. As one of the most important American rights, voting gives us the power to take an active role in deciding the future direction of our state and country. Last week, the Republican National Convention was nearly canceled by Hurricane Isaac. After watching some of the speeches, I thought it would be interesting to focus this week on the electoral process and why we hold these national conventions.

Over the past year, we had the opportunity to take part in something that comes only once every four years: the presidential nominating process. During this time, numerous political events have come and gone including primaries, caucuses and conventions. What purpose do they serve?

A primary is an election where members of one political party cast their votes for a certain candidate. It is similar to the general election but usually limited only to voters of one party. However, some states allow open primaries in which any voter can participate. Here in Connecticut, we recently held a primary on August 14th that chose each party’s candidates for congressional and senate races.

Other states hold caucuses to choose a nominee. This process involves members of one political party coming together by precinct to vote for a certain candidate. The winning candidate is then awarded delegates who pledge to vote for them. For example, the Iowa caucuses are often recognized as the first step toward the presidential nomination. While the winner may not ultimately become the nominee, the process helps gauge the level of public support.

Lastly, a national convention is the culmination of the primaries and caucuses where the party’s presidential nominee is formally announced. Every four years, these are held by both of the major political parties and even some of the smaller parties. Delegates come together to hear speeches and eventually vote for a candidate. Each convention has its own rules that are adopted four years earlier by delegates of the previous convention. A platform, or list of positions that a party supports or opposes, is also officially endorsed. However, this does not mean that either the party or the candidate must advocate for these positions. It is mostly symbolic these days.

Who participates in a national convention? Thousands of delegates are chosen from each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, including American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each political party establishes a set of rules that determines who will be chosen to serve as a delegate. This process differs from state to state. Delegates include party members and elected officials, such as state legislators or a governor. This year, there were 2,286 delegates and 2,125 alternative delegates at the Republican National Convention and there will be a total of 5,556 delegates voting at the Democratic National Convention.

Who decides where the convention will be held? The host city is usually chosen about one to two years before the convention. The location tends to be a major city with symbolic meaning for a specific election. This year, the Republican National Convention took place last week in Tampa, Florida from August 27th through August 30th while the Democratic National Convention will take place in Charlotte, North Carolina from September 4th through September 6th. Both of these states are significant because they may ultimately decide the next president depending on how they vote.

With three months before the election, we already know who the parties will choose as presidential nominees. Each candidate gathered enough support several months ago to win the nomination. Former Governor Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee and current President Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. Whether you are Republican, Democrat, third party or unaffiliated, it is important to follow these conventions because we have an opportunity to hear directly from candidates and nominees who will be making decisions that will impact our country’s future.