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Convention Chaos Theory

(Note: this is crossed-posted from TPMCafe.com).

Now that an extended Democratic nomination contest appears almost certain, there's been an explosion of renewed interest in the "brokered convention" scenario, which really just means a nomination that's in doubt after the primaries and caucuses are over. The big topics (explored especially well at OpenLeft.com) have been the battle over the 796 superdelegates, who are not bound by election results, and the possibility of a pre-convention or convention credentials fight over the Michigan and Florida delegations, who currently have no seats (or even hotel rooms) in Denver.

There's a more mundane but still significant problem with the situation: who will plan and execute the convention itself in the absence of a putative nominee?

National political conventions, despite the increasingly meagre live network television exposure they secure, are large, complex operations. Much of the initial preparation--fundraising, logistics, and site development--are done many months in advance, by local committees working with national party committees. But when it comes to the really crucial functions of a convention, such as who will speak when, what they will say, and how the whole show is presented to television viewers and to a massive international news media presence: every decision, major or minor, has in recent years been made with totalitarian authority by the putative nominee's staff.

As it happens, I've been a small cog in the machine during the last five Democratic Conventions, working in the script and speechwriting shops. To a large extent, convention operations are run by a floating circus of people, most of whom have been doing this as long as or longer than I have, who have regular day jobs and report for convention duty every four years. While the nominee's staff don't necessarily involve themselves in every minute detail, they have total veto power over everything that happens at a convention, and usually do micromanage the schedule, the speakers' list, and most of all the message. In 2004, for example, the Kerry-Edwards campaign set up a two-tiered vetting system for every speech (the second tier, where I worked, controlled what went on the teleprompter), and imposed strict message discipline on even the least important afternoon two-minute address (Al Sharpton was the one speaker who defied both the schedule and the message rules, with electrifying effect). All media communications were coordinated by the nominee's staff as well. And while much of this "controlling" activity happened at the convention itself, or in the week before it, the systems obviously had to be set up much earlier.

So: who's going to make all these decisions, and set up these systems, if the nominee isn't known until right before the convention, or until the convention itself? In theory, the DNC would step in, but keep in mind that every single DNC member is also a super-delegate and thus an actual or potential candidate partisan. And it's not as though there's any sort of generic schedule or message that can be planned that might not compromise one candidate or another, or the party as a whole

It gets worse: the last really serious platform fight at a Democratic Convention was in 1968. Indeed, the platform committee presentation is typically made to an empty convention hall in the middle of the day, and begins with a motion to dispense reading of the document, perhaps fluffed up by a short thematic speech. If the nomination contest is still in any doubt, platform fights might very well serve as maneuvers by one or both of the candidates to pry lose delegates, none of whom, BTW, will be bound by convention rules to stay with their pledged candidate (most of the non-superdelegates will have been chosen carefully by campaigns, and some may be bound by state laws and party rules). Who even remembers how to manage a platform fight? Who will plan the timing and structure? Nobody knows.

Moreover, in an open convention, every single speaker could represent a time bomb. In the recent past, speakers methodically echoed the convention message set by the putative nominee, and concluded every speech with a ritualistic invocation of the names on the ticket. What if many or most of the speeches tout one candidate over another? Will there be fights over the candidate preference of every politician seeking to get on the schedule? Will delegates and guests get into cheering contests after every speech? Nobody knows that, either.

Maybe, perhaps even probably, none of this chaos will ensue; with only two viable candidates for president, the odds of an open or "brokered" convention remain quite low, and really depend on so close a race that superdelegates or disputed delegations hold the balance of power. And perhaps the excitement associated with a truly deliberative convention outweighs all the concerns I've mentioned.

But it is time for Democrats to start thinking about these decisions, lest the convention devolve from excitement to a big, confusing, and divisive waste of precious time.