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Democratic National Convention in Charlotte
Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster
Democratic National Convention in Charlotte

Festive follies

2012 Conventions | With the changing political landscape, are national nominating conventions worth all the trouble and expense?

At their 1924 national convention in New York, it took Democrats 103 ballots over 17 days to nominate John W. Davis, a West Virginia congressman, as their presidential candidate.

At the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, incumbent President Gerald Ford had to beat back challenger Ronald Reagan for the nomination.

Meanwhile, the 2012 versions of these political carnivals held just two surprises: Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair at the Republican shindig in Tampa, Fla., and Democrats trying to erase the mention of God in their platform in Charlotte, N.C.

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With the state presidential primary system placing more control in the hands of voters and less in the hands of party power brokers, there hasn't been a political convention of real consequence, one in which the outcome was in doubt, for more than two generations.

Yet Republicans and Democrats continue to hold these tightly orchestrated festivals every four years. With the maturation of the 24-hour news cycle and the explosion of social media, it is fair to wonder if the conventions still serve a meaningful purpose in the presidential campaigns of the 21st century.

Sure, the events do provide both parties with a prime-time platform to present the narrative they plan to push during the fall's final campaign sprint. And this year in Tampa, Republicans touted challenger Mitt Romney as possessing the skill sets and experience necessary to solve the nation's economic ills. In Charlotte, Democrats argued that President Barack Obama just needs more time to get the nation back on track. Both campaigns used slick videos and speeches that bordered on idolatry to tell the biography of their candidates in the most mythical terms. Predictably, the delegates at both conventions madly cheered promises that likely won't be kept and will just get redelivered in four more years at new arenas packed with still-cheering crowds.

But this year network television devoted just one hour of prime-time coverage each day to the conventions. And on the second day of the Democrats' proceedings, NBC opted to show the first game of the new National Football League season instead of former President Bill Clinton's address. NBC executives probably made the right choice: The week before, ESPN's Thursday night college football game drew its highest ratings in more than a decade despite going opposite the GOP convention's final night.

The biggest argument for rethinking the conventions is their cost. Congress earmarked $18 million of taxpayer money for each party's convention this year, which is just a fraction of the funds used by operatives to infuse the events with the glitz and glamour mostly seen at entertainment awards shows. But it is hard to stomach politicians talking about the nation's debt (Republicans even had a real-time debt clock ticking off like a scoreboard at the Tampa Bay Times Forum), when you consider how much money is being spent to put on these shows. The stage used by the Republicans in Tampa, with high-resolution digital screens displaying an ever-changing array of images as a backdrop, cost $2.5 million.

"There is no justification for spending public funds on booze, balloons, and confetti when both parties are awash in campaign donations," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said earlier this summer when he introduced legislation to bar the use of taxpayer funds for future conventions.

What's worse, the combined $36 million allotted by Congress for the conventions does not include the $100 million also appropriated by Congress to pay for security at the events.

In the post 9/11 world, an alphabet soup of government security agencies, from the ATF to the TSA, descended on Tampa and Charlotte over the last two weeks. They turned both places into virtual occupied cites complete with a maze of metal fences set up to mark the boundaries.

Published reports placed the number of security and enforcement agencies involved at 50. Thousands of police officers from as far away as Chicago used bicycles, motorcycles, horses, and their feet to patrol a security perimeter that often forced convention goers to walk 30 minutes or longer in the humid heat to get from event to event. The FBI, the National Guard, the Secret Service, the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Marshals, and even forces from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service joined police in turning the two cities into what must have been the two safest spots on the planet. Helicopters circled overhead in continuous loops, the noise from their blades giving me flashbacks to the time I spent as an embedded reporter in Iraq.

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