Conventions-Panaceas, not Perfection

With an AG recount in the offing and inauguration day in Virginia almost two months away, conservative Virginia denizens of the blogsphere are doing what is only natural…they are scanning the horizon for the leader who can take the GOP back to the Governor’s mansion in 2009.

One interesting aspect is that they are not only talking about whom the nominee should be but also how to nominate them. Many suggest dropping primaries as the method of candidate selection and propose returning to conventions. They argue that conventions don’t cost the candidates as much, allow disputes to be kept in-house, and make for a more unified party.

Theirs is an interesting and well intentioned argument. I say it is misguided hogwash, because none of them propose stopping the one thing that always tears up a convention, and ultimately hurts the state ticket. Moreover, even a perfect selection method cannot save a flawed candidate.

They argue for the convention format because they are too young to remember the great bloodbaths the GOP had in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They have heard the stirring stories of Dick Obenshain addressing the 1978 convention at midnight after 6 grueling ballots, or of Lynwood Holton’s “Fire Engine” speech in 1970, and of Guy Farley doing the last second fandango and urging his folks to vote their conscience-and torpedo Herb Bateman. They yearn for the romance of shifting delegations and arm twisting and floor demonstrations and the like.

They don’t know of the arguments, the scuffles in the convention hall, the near fistfights after the balloting was over, and the great efforts needed to reunify after staging titanic fights in the name of friends or ideology or just picking the candidate who can win.

I know. I remember. I was there in Roanoke, Richmond, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Norfolk. I was at the Augusta ExpoLand and University Hall for congressional conventions, and dozens of local mass meetings in between. I soared, and fell, and rose to vote again and again.

Why do I suddenly feel like Patton talking about the Carthaginian Wars?

We won’t even talk about the cost issue. These conventions were funded from local mass meeting to high level convention by delegate registration fees. But after the 1994 convention some law students from The University said the registration fees were equivalent to a poll tax, and that it was unconstitutional to have to pay to vote in a convention…and the federal courts agreed.

So we will leave that organizational aspect aside for now, and consider the pronounced “benefits”:

Conventions don’t cost the candidates as much

In fact, conventions require as much paid staff as primaries campaigns to be on the ground organizing troops. While a convention would obviate the need for television, during the nominating phase of the 2005 primary there was no television advertising by any party in Northern Virginia (not cost effective) and (from anecdotal evidence) no massive television time elsewhere. However, when you consider the cost of sending out mailings, and the same type of costs of traveling the state, and the ongoing cost of recruiting and entertaining and herding delegates, it is still an expensive proposition. Then there is that unfortunate matter of fees. How will the state party fund a convention? The candidates save money, but the state party takes a hit having to raise money that could have been used in the general.

I don’t see the great net savings.

Conventions allow disputes to be kept in-house

No, they don’t. Serious disputes that impact and help decide the nominations will be in the paper the next day, others will leak out over time. The issue is never whether disputes will be kept in house; the issue is whether parties will allow disputes to keep them from working together for the nominee. If people are willing to work together for a candidate, no matter how violently they may disagree, it doesn’t really matter whether a dispute is kept in-house or not.

Conventions make for a more unified party

Apparently maturity, or at least age, has taught me self control, because I could type that idea without laughing.

The mass meeting progress inevitably causes the partisans of different candidates to grow to despise each other. The trench warfare of mass meetings and conventions means going to delegates one after the other and asking them to their face “are you with us or against us”. I distinctly remember as a HS senior sitting in the Richmond Coliseum, ready to vote for John Warner, when a teacher at my school told me point blank that he could never respect such a vote and that I was disappointing him. A totally inappropriate use of informal authority? I would say so. Yet that was the least of the hard nosed persuasion tactics I saw and experienced at conventions.

Emotions can boil over into violence. In 1981 while preparing to order supper in a Wendy’s in Virginia Beach I narrowly avoided a fight with the Delegate George Jones of Chesterfield County, a well known hot head who took issue with my Nathan Miller badge…Nathan having just finished ahead of the Jones candidate Herb Bateman. Hot emotions were raised by that convention, and the Main Street business boys lined up behind Chuck Robb…not a lot of unity to be found there…

I attended every state GOP conventions from 1977-1994 as a delegate or a volunteer, plus a couple of congressional conventions. The only time I was the GOP come out of a convention without real unity issues was in 1982 and 1993 (kind of). In 1993 the GOP was unified behind George Allen (but divided over Michael Farris), and in 1982 the ham handed attempts to get the GOP not to nominate a candidate and back Harry Byrd, Jr., caused a backlash and united the party behind Paul Trible, who won a narrow victory over Dick Davis then bailed on that support by turning tail in the face of a Chuck Robb candidacy in 1988.

Nope, Conventions cannot be counted on to spawn unity. They can be counted on to create third party candidates (Marshall Coleman as an independent in 1994), and for factions to jump ship when their man did not win (1977, 1981, 1985). Of course, my favorite move were those who simply sat on their hands. In 1982 Kevin Miller of Harrisonburg was the upset winner of the GOP nomination for the VA-6 over a field of five candidates, including the favorite Ray Garland, state senator from Roanoke who led on the first three ballots and lost on the fourth. Garland’s supporters in Roanoke felt the 6th district seat belonged to Roanoke, and they sat on their hands throughout the campaign. The plan worked, and Miller lost to Jim Olin (Democrat of Roanoke!) by barely 1000 votes. Garland lost his state senate seat in 1983, got the GOP congressional nomination in 1984, and in the year of the Reagan 49 state landslide lost to Olin by 54%-46%. The GOP reclaimed the seat in 1992, meaning that for the last fifty years the only time the democratic party held the seat was in the wake of the Garlandites sitting out the 1982 election.

Some unity.

Why does this happen?
The ill will, the bad blood, the hurt feelings…some of it is caused by the trench warfare nature of the convention process. But one particular aspect of the process is as slimy as a worm, venomous as a snake, and as destructive as a claymore.

It is the practice of “Instruction”. A Mass Meeting can instruct its delegation to vote for a certain candidate. This means candidate X can have a bare majority of delegates in each of a bare majority of voting units-lets say 51%- and no support in the other units, and because of instruction can win the nomination…even though if all the delegates voted their conscience candidate X might only draw 30% of the delegate votes.

I have experienced the joys of Instruction. I have been told whom to vote for, I have even been kept out of delegations. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t pretty, and it did not inspire me to hit the phone banks the following fall…pretty much defeating the purpose of a convention.

Now Conventions do have their good points. They do build enthusiasm, and I think they do allow the eventual nominee to build a stronger bond with the party rank and file. But conventions are not perfect. Conventions have costs, and the expenses are measured in money and unity and enthusiasm. Anyone who thinks that nominating by convention greases the path back to the Governor’s mansion is ignoring history.

The real key to winning elections is parties that stand for something. The key lies with candidates who promise not just to lead but offer real and achievable ideas that will better the lives of all the citizens that candidate wants to represent and workable plans to make those ideas reality. The key lies with candidates who excite and motivate the party base to work and persuade the undecided voters to believe.

The nominating process is just a means of saying you are open for business. What is more important is the quality of what you are selling.

Anyway, that’s my $.02

Addendum:  After writing this, it was pointed out that the state party rules currently forbid instructing.  But as late as 12.2007, they still allow slating.


3 thoughts on “Conventions-Panaceas, not Perfection

  1. Pingback: Conventions are still not the Silver Bullet « Renaissance Ruminations

  2. Pingback: GOP Picks Convention…Gilmore endangers GOP seats « Renaissance Ruminations

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