What Is a Party Convention?

Every major election cycle, such as the one that culminates in a presidential election, features a convention for participating parties. A party convention is a meeting of delegates from a political party to select candidates for office and deciding the party's platform.

On a less formal level, conventions serve to get party delegates and members organized and excited for an upcoming election.

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

National conventions have thousands of attendees who aren't involved in the official business at hand. These include activists, party 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, in which factions of delegates refused to back the nominee put forth by the party caucus.

These days, thanks to 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 1976 when delegates were undecided between President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan.

The Role of Delegates

A nominee is chosen by delegates, who act as voting representatives at the convention. The number of delegates representing a given state or territory is determined by such factors as 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 political parties in the United States usually pledge their vote to one candidate, there are also unpledged delegates. These are known as super delegates.

In states with presidential primaries, voters choose their delegates. In states with caucuses, delegates are selected at the party's state convention.

To ensure the Republican nomination, a candidate needs to win 1,237 delegates. The Democratic nominee needs 2,383 delegates.

Occasionally, a party holds a brokered convention, which means none of the candidates was able to secure enough delegates to gain the nomination on a first-ballot vote. In that case, delegates keep holding votes until they settle on a nominee.

Choosing a Host City for a National Convention

Parties choose the locations of the national conventions at least a year and a half in advance. 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 because a city has a strong association with the party or with the prospective nominee.

Because of the attendance size, conventions are usually held in sporting or concert arenas. Third 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 gives an acceptance speech

Crafting a Platform

Once a convention is underway, a platform is written and refined. Sometimes the language of the platform is generic, and other times it addresses specific issues.

Voting for a nominee is done publicly, with a roll call of states and territories taken in alphabetical order. This usually happens with great pomp, with each state's spokesperson prefacing his or her vote with a flowery description of the state they come from.

Introducing the Nominee

A staple of party conventions is speeches -- lots of them. 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 element of any convention, and it gets the most attention. This speech gives the nominee a chance 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.

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