The Modern Political Convention: A Four-Day Infomercial for All Involved
TAMPA, Fla. -- A day later than anticipated, I'm sitting in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, an arena full of delegates milling about below me. They've all fallen silent as a list of prominent GOP members who've passed away over the past year scrolls across the giant screens. It's hard, though, to look somber when wearing a goofy American-flag top hat.
On one end of the hall, in large writing, is the phrase "We Built It," a tagline all but hand delivered by President Barack Obama earlier this summer. On the other end of the hall is a debt clock, purportedly showing the national debt that 's built up since the convention started: $2.6 billion and counting.
Which is odd considering the insane amount of money obviously being spent in Tampa this weekend. Money being spent by the city, counties and states for an army of police to provide security and direct reporters to drive around in endless circles in search of imaginary parking areas. By state delegates on hotel rooms and parties and goofy hats. By media outlets on panel discussions, daily special-edition print products, nightly parties, entire restaurants and even a few hundred reporters sent down to cover the exact same thing. By protestors on an ice sculpture that read "MIDDLE CLASS" (yes, really). And by marketers, trade groups and others eager to get their names in front of delegates, politicians and media.
Last night, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States hosted a party at the Florida Aquarium. There, shrimp cocktail, raw oysters and fish tacos were served while the imprisoned fish watched with horror from behind thick glass. (Their trauma did not deter me.) National and international liquor brands poured gallons of free product to thirsty attendants. (And, boy, were they thirsty.) Cheerleaders from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wandered through the crowd making small talk and posing for pictures.
Other trade groups co-sponsored as well.
There was a mermaid. Scratch that . There were two mermaids.
It was a great party by any measure. And it will happen again next week at the Democratic convention.
But what is the point of all this?
Well, for DISCUS, the point is immediately clear. It's a marketing and outreach opportunity. What better way to keep the regulators off theirs back than to fete members of both parties, to remind them of all the joy (and jobs) their companies brings to the constituents.
For the media outlets, it's a time for upstarts to prove themselves, the old-timers to show off their historical pedigree, and newspapers to meet face to face the people who still read print products.
Oh, and there's this whole convention thing.
When it looked like Tropical Storm Isaac was going to hit Tampa and there was talk of canceling the convention, the "What's the point?" question was raised. And without shame, both politicians and pundits alike said, "Well, this is Mitt Romney's chance to make his case, introduce himself and get his brand out to the American people."
The same thing will go for Barack Obama and the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. next week.
It's now hard to believe that there was a time when the conventions actually served a purpose. Over the course of a few days, delegates gathered and squabbled and shouted, wheeled and dealed until they settled on a candidate. It wasn't a party to rubber-stamp a previously agreed-upon nominee. It was part of the political process.
Now, it's a four-day infomercial.
Couldn't the same thing be achieved by running half-hour or hour-long advertising on broadcast TV? Or, if we're worried about things possibly getting really unfair really fast -- the Democrats wouldn't be able to keep up with the Republicans in terms of spending this year -- the nightly news programs could devote entire shows to the candidates.
Then again, the candidates might not participate. Politicians have always preferred to get their messages directly to the people without the pesky interference of meddling reporters.
So on we go with the political marketing events of the season.
Not that there's anything wrong with that . Better the American populace know something about the people they will elect. And it wouldn't kill them to stop watching "Honey Boo Boo" for a couple of nights and pay attention to politics.
The conventions do bring a lot of money, every four years, to two lucky towns. For the Republican convention alone, 2,286 delegates and 2,125 alternates descended on Tampa -- and that 's not including support staff, family, media and everyone else. And undoubtedly conventions serve to motivate the political operatives at the state level. (One way said motivation is achieved is by sticking underperforming states out in the boonies. Didn't deliver last time, enjoy your stay in Clearwater!)
And they're good for the funny-hat industry.