By Peter Canellos, Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief
DENVER -- It has been 28 years since a candidate came to his party's convention to fight for the presidential nomination.
In retrospect, that 1980 Democratic convention -- at which challenger Ted Kennedy tried to change the rules to allow delegates pledged to Jimmy Carter to choose him instead -- marked a major change in the way people evaluate the success of a political convention. Starting in 1984, people would no longer would have any doubts about who would be nominated. Instead, the convention would be judged on its stagecraft -- on the style and substance of its presentation.
Before 1980, a little chaos was part of the nature of a political convention. For most of American history, conventions had been where the presidential nominees were selected; literally dozens of hopefuls would show up and one would emerge after days of balloting. Primary elections were mostly exhibition matches designed to help delegates assess the candidates on the stump. But even after the parties started to bind delegates to follow the will of the primary voters, in the 1960s and '70s, conventions were often unruly -- sometimes disastrously so.
The Democratic conclaves of 1968 and 1972 were so out of control that they all but doomed the party's nominees, but no one felt empowered to exercise control. Compared to 1968, which featured riots in the streets, and 1972, in which procedural wrangling delayed George McGovern's acceptance speech until the wee hours of the morning, the 1980 Democratic convention was a model of efficiency.
But it happened to follow an unusually unified and even joyful Republican convention, featuring an acceptance speech for the ages by Ronald Reagan, and the Democrats couldn't match it. Suddenly the airing of a party's dirty linen was no longer tolerable. All of America was starting to judge conventions by a different set of standards.
So when, in his acceptance speech, Carter muffed a tribute to the recently deceased Hubert Humphrey -- calling him Hubert Horacio Hornblower -- he got no break from the pundits: His gaffe launched a thousand punchlines. When balloons failed to drop at the end of the speech, they became a metaphor for Carter's accident-prone presidency. And when a grim and bitter Kennedy failed to smile or clasp arms with Carter on the stage, both men seemed diminished.
Since 1984, both parties have been careful to resolve any disputes before the gavel comes down on the convention, and to give far more consideration to the quality of the speeches, the crispness of the schedule, and the imagery presented to the public.
Still, it would be wrong to suggest that these changes have reduced conventions to merely cosmetic exercises. For even in the era of stagecraft, conventions have played significant roles in the outcomes of elections.
The 1992 Republican confab, for instance, is remembered for the unfortunate night of speeches featuring Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle, whose heavy social conservatism turned off much of middle America. (A joke about Buchanan's speech having been better in the original German is still making the rounds.) Embattled President George H.W. Bush, who was already fighting a perception that he was out of touch on the economy, suffered anew from the perception that his party had veered out of the mainstream on social issues.
Likewise, the 2004 Democratic convention can now be viewed as a failure. First, nominee John Kerry's staff prevailed on many speakers to tone down their criticism of President Bush, in the belief that moderates didn't want their president ridiculed during wartime. Only two major speakers -- an unrepentant Carter and an angry Al Sharpton -- refused to comply. In the end, many political observers believe the failure to use the convention to outline a sharp case against Bush hurt Kerry's chances.
Second, a disproportionate amount of convention time was dedicated to showcasing Kerry's military record -- a focus that may have been excessive and may inadvertently have drawn more attention to the Swift Boat veterans who attacked Kerry's record in the weeks that followed.
Then there were the good conventions marred by poor acceptance speeches. In 1984, Walter Mondale orchestrated the best-managed Democratic convention up to that time -- but he should have saved some mojo for his speech. It included a fateful miscalculation, a promise to raise taxes that helped send him on his way to a landslide defeat.
At the 1996 Republican convention, a low-energy affair on many fronts, aging nominee Bob Dole bemoaned the retreat from the values of the Depression era and World War II -- a message that seemed more outmoded than nostalgic.
Then again, even a good convention and a well-received speech can't guarantee a victory. In 1988, Michael Dukakis excited the crowd with his Neil Diamond-infused acceptance speech and left the flawless convention with a 17-point lead.
It turned out to be a long slog to November.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.