Say goodbye to the four-day national political convention, a dinosaur that could be nearing extinction. By John Whitesides.
Republicans have cut their Tampa, Florida, convention from the traditional four days to three because of a threatening storm, just as they did four years ago when a hurricane hit Louisiana. Democrats had already reduced next week's convention to three days.
The cutbacks have given new momentum to questions about whether it is time to scale back and modernize the quadrennial conventions, a political tradition dating to the 1830s that has been plagued in recent years by rising costs and declining news value.
"I think we are seeing the final days of the traditional political convention," Republican strategist Rich Galen said. "At some point you have to say 'why are we spending so much money and time on this?'"
The Republican convention's rules committee voted last week to form a commission to look at the future of conventions and find better ways to finance and operate them. In addition to cutting their length, Republicans will explore options like hosting the convention at multiple sites.
Cutting an extra day from this year's convention had little impact, with most of Monday's planned speakers shoehorned into later spots in the program.
"We've been doing conventions the same way a long time. The world has changed," said Mike Duncan, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
"It's time to look at this whole process and make a determination if this is the way we want to do it," he said of the commission, which will report its findings to the party's state chairmen in spring 2014.
Ballooning costs, and the likelihood federal funds will be eliminated for the next round, has increased the urgency for cost-saving changes. In Tampa, the host committee will spend $55 million and the federal government $18 million to stage the convention. Security will cost the federal government another $50 million.
"This is a huge expenditure for both parties," said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "There is a need for a national convention, but you could do it in a day or two."
Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, who worked on John Kerry's presidential campaign, said Democrats considered cutting the convention back to two days in 2004 but cities were less interested in hosting the convention without a four-day guarantee, he said.
"I gotta believe there's going to be another effort to do that," Elmendorf said.
While conventions were once a place where presidential nominees were decided and vice presidents chosen, most of the political drama and uncertainty has been drained from them in recent decades.
Now the conventions are highly scripted political advertisements for the party's presidential nominee, straining for attention in a hyper-active media environment. Political operatives said there are plenty of ways to get the same message across.
"I'm not sure the old model is going to work four or eight years from now," Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis said. "You can still have the big speech. The question is what do you do with the other days to get people to pay attention."
Republican strategist Mike Murphy, writing in Time magazine, said it was time for a "mercy killing" of conventions.
"Why not cut it all down to the commercial it is and focus just on the stars? Why not focus on two tight prime-time hours, held on one or even across two nights?" Murphy said.
The lack of news already has led broadcast networks to cut back their prime-time coverage of each convention to a total of three hours this year, but the acceptance speeches wrapping up the conventions still draw big audiences.
In 2008, the speeches by Obama and Republican John McCain were seen by nearly 40 million people - the sort of audience no candidate is easily willing to give up.
"It still is the best chance for both parties to tell their story the way they want it to be told," said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who favors keeping the conventions at four days.
"It's a unique part of American culture. Its role and purpose may evolve, but it's still serving a valuable function," he said. DM
Photo: A Ron Paul for president supporter wears a patriotic hat on the convention floor during the opening session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 27, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer