What Is a Party Convention?

Every major election cycle, particularly those that lead to a presidential election, features a convention for the participating political parties. These conventions serve as a meeting of party delegates, coming together to nominate party candidates for office and establishing the party's platform.

Less formally, conventions get party delegates and members organized and excited for an upcoming election day. This is a crucial step in preparing for the general election. It encourages people to become registered voters and increases voter registration turnout.

Conventions can occur at several local, statewide, or national levels. The most significant party conventions in the United States are the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. Both conventions happen every four years during the summer before a presidential election.

Thousands of people attend national conventions. The attendees include activists, party officials, election officials, volunteers, local business leaders, and news media.

National Conventions: Origins in Conflict

National conventions have their roots in the early 1800s. At that time, members of Congress would meet with their party caucuses to determine a nominee. But as more newly settled western states started clashing with eastern states over nominee choices, a convention to resolve the matter became practical.

Those tensions set the tone for the 1824 Democratic-Republican convention. Factions of delegates refused to back the nominee endorsed by the party caucus.

Nowadays, thanks to the party's primary elections, it's rare that a nominee hasn't been mostly decided on before a party convention begins. The last time a national party convention contained any drama regarding the nominee was in 1976. Here, delegates could not decide between President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan.

The Role of Delegates

Delegates, who act as voting representatives at the convention, pick a nominee. The number of votes a delegate carries represents a given state or territory and is determined by population and the number of Congressional representatives. Delegate attendees usually range in number from 2,500 to 5,000.

A delegate can be any registered member of a given party. While delegates of the two major parties in the U.S. usually pledge their vote to one candidate, there are also unpledged delegates. Unpledged delegates aren't required to have party affiliation or pledge their support to a particular presidential candidate.

In states with presidential primaries, voters choose their delegates through a primary ballot. In states with caucuses, the caucus picks the delegate at the party's state convention.

The candidate must secure most of the delegates available for that political party to ensure a nomination. The number of delegates available may vary from one election cycle to another. For instance, in the 2016 election, the Republican party candidate must secure 1,237 delegates for the party nomination. For Democrats, the candidate needs to earn 2,383 delegates. Meanwhile, in this year's 2024 election, the Republican candidate needs a majority of 1,215 delegates. For a Democratic candidate, they need 1,969 delegates to secure the nomination.

What Happens When No Candidate Secures Enough Delegates?

When majority delegates don't select a nominee on the first round of voting at the nominating convention, a brokered convention happens. Here, the delegates vote for whichever candidate they choose. The delegates keep holding votes until they settle on a nominee. Because of this process, brokered conventions are also known as multi-ballot conventions.

Choosing a Host City for a National Convention

Parties choose the locations of the national convention. Major parties often pick a location at least a year and a half before the convention. Cities vie aggressively for the chance to host since conventions of this scale tend to provide a significant economic boost.

Parties will often choose a host city based on the success of a past convention held there. Or they'll choose because a city strongly associates with the party or the prospective nominee.

Because of the attendance size, conventions are usually held in sporting or concert arenas. Minor parties, such as the Socialist, Libertarian, and Green parties, also hold nominating conventions.

What Happens at a National Convention?

During a national convention, parties:

  • Craft a platform (a set of principles and goals)
  • Hear from speakers
  • Introduce their nominee
  • Hear the nominee give an acceptance speech
  • The process is also governed by a set of rules and regulations under the election code.

Crafting a Platform

The process of writing and refining a political platform during the convention involves a collaborative effort. The process often involves party leaders, delegates, policy experts, and sometimes the public. These platforms serve as the set of principal goals of the political party. It outlines the party's position on various issues, supported by the party and its candidates. Sometimes, the platform's language is generic, and other times, it addresses specific issues. This part of the convention emphasizes the party's commitment to address its electors' concerns, guided by state law and election law.

Introducing the Nominee

Speeches–lots of them—are a staple of party conventions. Lesser figures in the party usually speak in the daytime, often reiterating platform issues or promoting a favored candidate.

Evening speeches are usually reserved for major figures from the hosting state, former presidents and governors, and sometimes even celebrities. A climactic keynote speech underscores the themes and ideas that the party has settled on.

The grand finale of the convention introduces the party nominee. The nominee's acceptance speech is the part of any convention that gets the most attention. This speech allows the nominee to outline and reiterate their plans once they reach office.

Although the nominee's identity is usually a foregone conclusion, the acceptance speech is generally followed by music, celebrating, and dropping thousands of balloons from the rafters.

The overall sense is of a giant pep rally between the platform, the nomination, and the conventions. Party conventions are traditional events likely to be a staple of every major election cycle.

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Understanding the intricacies of party rules and the purpose behind state party conventions can be overwhelming. If you wonder how these events impact your voting rights or the broader democratic process, you're not alone. Party conventions may sound familiar, but their purpose can be unclear to most. Civil rights attorneys can guide you through understanding the intricate rules of voting laws. Their experience navigating this legal landscape can give you the needed clarity. Don't let confusion stand in your way. Reach out to a legal professional today.

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