About Those Conventions...

Splits and controversies made for extra drama at this summer's Democratic and Republican national conventions. In this activity, students learn about and discuss what conventions are for and how they work, and what happened at the conventions this summer.   

To the teacher:

This political season has generated extraordinary attention to the actual process by which presidential candidates are chosen.  The made-for-the-media candidacy of Donald Trump and the unexpected popularity of Bernie Sanders contributed to a high level of interest for everyone--but especially among young people.

Both the Democratic and Republican nomination processes underwent widespread examination and criticism as anti-establishment forces fought for control of their respective parties. Republicans made several last-ditch efforts to thwart the nomination of Donald Trump--the clear winner of the party's primary contest. In the Democratic Party, the role of unelected superdelegates and the Democratic National Committee’s favoritism toward Hillary Clinton led to anger among Sanders supporters.

Leading up to the conventions, many questions were raised:

  • Who makes the rules and can they be changed?
  • Is it possible for someone other than the winner of the primaries to win the nomination? What would have to happen?
  • Are superdelegates anti-democratic? Should they be eliminated?
  • Should the party platforms reflect the views of the nominee?
  • Will the factions unite sufficiently to win the election?
  • Is either party facing an actual split?

The goal of this lesson is to clarify the role of the conventions in the election process so that  students can better understand the political maneuvering  underneath the headlines and appreciate the historic nature of the 2016 election.

A Brief Quiz

Ask students if they watched the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer.  What’s one word they would use to describe the Republican convention July 18-20?  How about the Democratic convention  a week later?

Ask them to take this brief quiz on the convention of  "conventions."

1. How are candidates nominated for the presidency by the two major political parties?
a) now it's by email
b) by delegates elected at state primaries and caucuses
c) a survey mailed to all eligible voters

2. What happens at the national conventions?
a) speeches by former elected officials
b) official nomination process
c) the candidates' spouses and children talk about him/her
d) the Pope addresses the nation
e) average Americans with compelling stories praise the candidate

3. What is a party platform?
a) a stage for speakers
b) where the important party leaders sit
c) the Party's policy positions
d) the Democrats' or Republicans' computer environment
e) not applicable

4. What do Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz have in common?
a) They both won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor or Actress
b) They both ran for their party's nomination and lost
c) They were both fired by Donald Trump on "The Apprentice"
d) They were leaders of their party

5. Which word or words do not belong with the phrase "Party Establishment"
a) Feel the Bern
b) super PACs
c) super delegates
d) "invisible primary"
e) RNC


Student Reading 1:
About Conventions

Have the students read the following descriptions of the broad history and anatomy of the major party conventions.

What are the conventions for?

Political conventions are large meetings held by political parties to choose candidates to run for office. National conventions are held every four years to determine the parties' candidates for president. Both the major parties—Democratic and Republican—and the smaller third parties hold conventions in the months preceding the presidential elections. Though the outcome of the convention is almost always decided before the convention actually begins, the level of unity, the political positions adopted by the party, and the speakers and speeches on display to the nation sometimes make the conventions an important piece of the election process.

How did they begin?

The first national nominating conventions were held for the 1832 presidential elections. Before then, caucuses of party leaders—usually members of Congress—met privately and decided the candidates. Though the conventions brought a more open nominating process, the decisions were still being made by a small number of party leaders. Delegates were mostly chosen by party bosses and maintained their loyalty on the basis of patronage--government jobs in return for the right vote. By the late 1800s states began to institute party primaries, which gave voters the power to decide the party nominees. But it was still possible as late as 1968 to win the nomination without entering a single primary. Since then, delegates to both major parties are chosen in state primaries and caucuses, and the conventions merely make the nominations official.

What is a smoke-filled room?

In 1920, the Republican Party met in Chicago to decide their presidential nominee. Among the leading candidates, none could win a majority of the delegates. After four unsuccessful ballots, the convention adjourned and delegates met overnight in several private meetings to try and break the deadlock. At 5am, reporter Kirke Simpson filed a story which stated "Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today as Republican candidate for President." Senator Warren G. Harding won the nomination and went on to win the election. "Smoke-filled room" went on to mean a group of influential power brokers meeting in secret to make important political decisions. (Warren G. Harding usually appears on lists of the worst presidents in history.)

How do they work?

Each party determines their own rules for how the convention operates. The national party assigns a specific number of delegates to each state—based on the population of the state and the size/winning power of the state's party membership. Each state party has its own set of rules for how the delegates are chosen.

The conventions are four days, with the daytime agenda devoted to meetings, rallies, and speeches and entertainment from lesser-known figures. Evenings are given to nationally known speakers and celebrities—always with an eye toward the television audience.  The formal nomination is decided by a state-by-state roll call vote. The presidential and vice-presidential nominees give their acceptance speeches on the last evening.

During the course of the convention, committees meet to hammer out the party's official positions on national issues. (The individual issues are called "planks," and the set of political positions is called the party "platform.") In both parties, these meetings tend to be contentious affairs, with party factions arguing for different priorities and wording.

The national committees

The parties are governed by a national committee comprised of hundreds of party leaders from across the country. The national committees promote their party's candidates and political positions, raise money, and establish rules for the nominating primaries and caucuses. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Republican National Committee (RNC) represent the "establishment," both in the parties and in the nation as a whole. They generally locate themselves somewhere in the center of the party's ideological spectrum, are resistant to radical change, and control access to the big money contributors.

The Democratic National Committee is made up of the chairs and vice-chairs of all the state committees, all Democratic governors and elected members of Congress, some former high officials,  and others elected by state committees and appointed by the chair—almost 450 people in all. The DNC is supposed to remain neutral in the nominating process according to DNC rules:

"The Chairperson shall be responsible for ensuring that the national officers and staff of the Democratic National Committee maintain impartiality and even-handedness during the Democratic Party Presidential nominating process."

This year’s DNC controversy ...

During the current electoral season, Bernie Sanders ran a presidential campaign that was explicitly anti-establishment. One of the obstacles his outsider initiative faced was the early endorsement of Hillary Clinton by the Party's "superdelegates." Superdelegates are the 716 members of the nominating convention who gain their voting status through their relationship to the Democratic Party rather than through votes in the primaries and caucuses. The system of superdelegates was introduced after the 1972 election for just such an occasion—to prevent the party from nominating the "wrong" person.  Whereas convention delegates  who earn admittance to the convention through their state's primary results are pledged to support their candidate, the "super" delegates may vote for any candidate. All members of the DNC are superdelegates.

The allegations of bias turned out to be true. Just before the 2016 Convention, the Wikileaks website released documents hacked from the DNC. They revealed that throughout the entire primary season, the DNC was maneuvering to sidetrack the Sanders insurgency. The chair of the Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign.

And RNC controversy

The RNC consists of three representatives from each state party—the chairperson, national committeewoman and national committeeman. The current chair, Reince Priebus, is the longest-serving chair in RNC history. Throughout the 2016 primaries, Priebus performed a delicate balancing act in maintaining impartiality in the face of a candidacy that many in the Republican establishment opposed. In a July 21 piece in Politico, Eli Stokols gives a detailed account of just how difficult it has been for Priebus (and the RNC) to manage its relationship to the Donald Trump campaign and his ultimate decision to support Trump:

But Trump’s unexpected rise last fall presented Priebus with a choice: continue to fight for the vision of the more modern, inclusive GOP he had laid out three years earlier or finish out his third and likely final term as, in the words of Bill Kristol, an "obedient, compliant apparatchik willing to subordinate a grand old party to a new strongman."

Priebus chose to stay to aid and coach a candidate who may undermine the very things he has dedicated his tenure to improving. He has staked his reputation on Trump. To some extent, the tenuous unity visible at the Republican National Convention this week may be due to Priebus’ peacemaking efforts. And Trump’s near total dependence on much of what Priebus has built has made the RNC itself more vital than ever to Republican success in November. But in bending over backward to appease Trump in an effort to make sure the GOP didn’t crack up, the man who worked to strengthen the party has become a symbol of its weakness.


Discussion Questions:

1. There is usually no suspense about who the major party nominees will be, and network television generally broadcasts only a few hours of the nominating conventions.  If you were making decisions about broadcast coverage of the conventions, which of the following would you choose? Why?

a)  the acceptance speeches
b)  celebrity endorsements
c)  platform committee discussions
d)  personal endorsements by everyday people
e)  speeches by elected officials
f)   brain surgery demonstrations
g)  speeches by family members of the nominees
h)  the roll call vote
i)   singers, comedians and other entertainers
j)   all of it
k)  none of it

2. The DNC and RNC, which operate as private clubs, decide the rules under which presidential candidates are chosen. Is this good for democracy? Is there a better way?

3. Senator Robert LaFollette, who ran for president in 1924, defined voting rights as "the sovereign right that each citizen shall for himself exercise his choice by direct vote, without the intervention or interference of any political agency."   What does the quotation mean and how close are presidential nominations to his ideal?


Student Reading 2:
The 2016 Conventions

Drama at the 2016 Republican Convention

On July 18, 2016, 2472 delegates assembled in Cleveland to begin the Republican Convention. Donald Trump went into the Convention with 300 more delegates than he needed to win the nomination. Despite Trump's apparent winning majority, the Convention began with a high level of drama. Many of the delegates who were not supporters of Trump continued their efforts to block his nomination - or at the very least, to make it difficult for an "outsider" to capture the party in the future. These efforts to change the nominating rules at the Convention were as futile as the "Never Trump" efforts before the Convention.

Though the Republican National Committee was supporting the candidate, the Republican establishment was highly divided on how much support to give or, for some, whether to endorse Trump at all. Many of the party's top names refused to endorse Trump or even attend the convention. They object to his anti-Muslim rhetoric, anti-immigrant stances, attacks on the judiciary, attacks on fellow Republicans, erratic statements on foreign policy, intemperate manner, and incoherence generally.

"I don't want to see trickle-down racism." 
-2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney

"He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot. He doesn’t represent my party. He doesn’t represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for."
- Senator  Lindsey Graham

"If we shrug at public dishonesty ?— ?if we normalize candidates who think that grabbing power makes it OK to say whatever they need to in the short-term ?—? then we will be changed by it."
- Sen. Ben Sasse (condemning both Clinton and Trump)

"No. I've got to mow my lawn."
- Sen. Jeff Flake on whether he's attending GOP convention.

"Trump’s abrasive, know nothing-like nativist rhetoric has blocked out sober discourse about how to tackle America’s big challenges."
-Gov. Jeb Bush

With the two living Republican ex-presidents and  dozens of elected officials boycotting the convention, and many others offering only tepid support, there were few really big names among the speakers. Perhaps the most illustrious speaker was Trump's nomination rival, Sen. Ted Cruz. But Cruz, incredibly, did not endorse the nominee. Instead, he urged voters to "Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience, vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution." Cruz was booed off the stage.

Republican senators, governors and representatives as well as entertainers, business people, religious leaders and members of the Trump family. Some of the speaker highlights include:

  • Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor led the crowd through a trial of Hillary Clinton for a litany of "crimes," with the audience enthusiastically yelling, "Guilty!" for each charge.
  • Ben Carson: Trump’s former rival for the nomination spoke of the connection between Clinton and Lucifer (the Devil).
  • Melania Trump (Donald Trump's wife): What was intended to be an important introductory speech by the next First Lady turned into an embarrassing fiasco when it became apparent that parts of the speech were copied virtually word for word from Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech.
  • Paul Ryan (Speaker of the House of Representatives):  The speech by the most powerful Republican in the country urged support for the Republican ticket without offering any praise for the Republican nominee.

Republican Platform

The fight for the Party position on controversial political issues was not so much a battle between the establishment and Trump, as between moderates and extremists. On nearly every issue, the most conservative stance won out. This was true even when (as in the case of LGBT rights) Donald Trump's own positions were more moderate.

Planks in the platform include:

  • Opting out of all climate change agreements
  • Privatizing the health insurance for older citizens--Medicare
  • No amnesty for undocumented immigrants
  • Building a wall along the entire Mexican border
  • Supporting abstinence-only birth control programs in schools
  • Supporting expansion of the death penalty
  • Eliminating federal student loans
  • Supporting a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion
  • Opposing all campaign finance laws
  • Protecting businesses that want to discriminate against LGBT customers
  • Opposing regulations on the environment and in banking/finance
  • Encouraging the teach of the Bible in public schools
  • Ensuring that "man-made law be consistent with God-given, natural rights"
  • Supporting oil exploration on public lands, fracking and coal ("an abundant, clean,affordable,  reliable  domestic energy  resource")

Drama at the Democratic Party Convention

The Democratic Convention was held in Philadelphia from July 25-28, 2016. As with the Republican Convention, the final results were clear from the beginning. Hillary Clinton had the support of almost 60% of the delegates.

The release of documents showing the DNC's anti-Sanders bias just before the convention served to further alienate the many Sanders delegates who were already reluctant to support Clinton. The Sanders forces brought their fight to the platform committee, convention floor and to the streets outside the convention. They continued their protests even after Sanders formally endorsed the front-runner. The  Sanders supporters clashed with Clinton on many issues, including global trade agreements, climate change, reining in Wall Street, and healthcare.

These issues were hard fought in the platform committee. The Sanders delegates did win on some issues:

  • support for a $15 minimum wage
  • support for a financial transaction tax on Wall St. trades
  • abolition of the death penalty

And lost on others:

  • the platform will not include opposition to the TPP trade deal (the number one issue for the Sanders campaign)
  • the anti-fracking plank failed
  • no tax on carbon emissions
  • no endorsement of a single payer health plan
  • no mention of the Israeli occupation of Palestine

Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton on the first night of the convention. It was a move that all his supporters knew was coming, but one that many opposed. The opposition to Hillary Clinton and the anger toward the Party establishment fueled protest throughout the convention—from the chants of "Bernie!, Bernie!" and "No TPP!" to the walkouts, to the demonstrations in the streets outside.

The speaker whose talk got the most media attention was Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun was an Army captain killed in Iraq. Khan, a Muslim, delivered a scathing reproach to the Republican nominee and offered Trump a copy of the U.S. Constitution, asking Trump if he'd ever read it. He went on to ask Trump: "Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing. And no one."

Donald Trump spent the following week attacking Khan in tweets, speeches, and interviews. In  reply to Khan's withering indictment of lack of sacrifices, Trump explained: "I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've had tremendous success. I think I've done a lot."

Other notable speeches at the Democratic convention included:

Barack Obama:  The president excited the audience with a speech that emphasized optimism for the country, enthusiasm for the candidate and scorn for the Republican candidate.

Michelle Obama:  In a compelling speech, Obama spoke of the progress the country has made, noting that her own children living in the White House as an example--and praised the nominee as a champion of children everywhere.

Bill Clinton: Clinton gave a personal speech, seeking to humanize a candidate whose manner is sometimes perceived as less than personable.

Rev. William Barber (leader of the North Carolina NAACP)--Barber gave a fiery speech exhorting people to stand up and join the struggle for social justice. In reaction to forces that are intent on stopping "the heart of our democracy," Rev. Barber said "We are being called, like our mothers and fathers, to be the moral defibrillators of our time."


The Vice Presidents

Both parties nominated safe, establishment-approved candidates for vice-president. Under pressure from the RNC, Donald Trump agreed to run with Indiana governor Mike Pence. Pence is a stalwart conservative who has served in Congress and as governor. He is best known nationally for his defense of Indiana's law extending legal protection to businesses which choose not to provide service to same-sex weddings.

The Democrats nominated Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. Sen. Kaine, also former governor of Virginia, is a political moderate from a swing state who speaks Spanish fluently. He was not favored by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party because of his support for the TPP trade deal, (anti-labor) "right-to-work" legislation and opposition to strict banking regulation.

The Grass Roots

Watching a political convention is a passive activity.  But what happens at conventions is very much determined by the ongoing activism (or lack of activism) in the years before and after.

Trump’s nomination was fueled by anti-establishment forces and grassroots groups on the right. Activist organizing by gun clubs, volunteer border patrols, "pro-life" activist groups, conservative evangelical churches, property rights and general anti-big government groups, and Tea Party organizations around the country largely determined the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, pro-gun platform.  Perhaps because of Donald Trump’s erratic statements and inconsistent ideology, not all of the grassroots groups have joined the campaign. However, lacking a powerful campaign organization, the Trump campaign will be depending heavily on single issue grassroots groups.

The Bernie Sanders campaign too benefited from  a movement that to challenge the status quo. The "political revolution" that Sanders championed reflected widespread activism over the past few years by grassroots organizations working to close the ever-widening gap between the super-wealthy and everyone else. Their activism helped give rise to the unprecedented level of support for a candidate who describes himself as a "democratic socialist." Hundreds of local organizations advocating for the homeless, working on environmental justice, national health care and LGBT issues joined the campaign. National organizations like Fight for 15, National Nurses United, Occupy Wall Street, MoveOn, and Peace Action formally endorsed the candidate. In American politics, presidential campaigns provide a convenient vehicle for easy participation in the political process, but it's the grass roots organizations that carry on the fights every day of the year.



1. Given the party divisions that were apparent at the conventions, what is the future of the Democratic Party if...

a) Hillary Clinton wins by a large margin.

  •  Will the Party establishment be in a better position to ignore the progressive/Sanders wing of the Party?
  •  Will Sanders supporters create an alternative party?
  •  Will Clinton feel free to push a progressive agenda?

 b) Donald Trump wins the election

  • Will the Republican Party establishment begin to build an alternative party?
  • Will large sectors of the Party move to the Democrats?

2. In an article examining the Sanders political revolution early in the campaign, Michael Corcoran notes the usual sad state of presidential elections:

 Organizers work tirelessly year-round in trying to raise consciousness and fight for social justice. But every four years, the country gets consumed and distracted by the presidential election - or what Noam Chomsky calls "a public relations extravaganza that only marginally deals with issues."

Do you agree? Will the 2016 electoral campaign be different?



Activity:  Examine the platform

Have the class look at the platform comparison available from http://www.votekentucky.us/Dem%20and%20Repub%20Platform%20comparison.pdf (PDF no longer available).

Ask students to choose one issue (e.g. abortion, marriage issues, crime and punishment, etc) to examine in detail. Read the relevant sections in the original document.

  • What does the platform language actually mean?
  • How do the positions differ?
  • Do they call for a specific action or just state a general policy?
  • Do a reality check: Is the plank more of a "wish list" position to appease a faction of the Party,   or can the policy be enacted in the real world?
  • Assuming the final platform is a compromise between competing factions of the parties, imagine the starting positions for the Sanders and DNC, and Trump and RNC delegates on the platform committee.








https://www.demconvention.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Democratic-Party-Platform-7.21.16-no-lines.pdf (no longer active)