National party conventions, which long ago ceded the job of choosing presidential nominees to the primaries and caucuses, have two remaining jobs.
The first one is public: The conventions are a multiday infomercial to kick off the fall campaign. The podium is filled with carefully scripted, designed and choreographed advertising for the presidential ticket – and against the other party’s ticket.
The impact of that advertising in most years is most strongly felt among the party’s own voters. The conventions remind them of what they like about their party and what they don’t like about the other one, and they offer plenty of things to like about their nominee.
Even the disorganized Donald Trump operation could pull off this task. It’s fairly easy, and he’s a professional entertainer. Yes, many big-name Republicans won’t be speaking in Cleveland, but unless TV commentators constantly talk about the missing stars of the party, most viewers won’t even notice it. After all, most voters only watch (at most!) the speeches by the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, and then short clips of a handful of other speakers.
The most noticeable gap between the Republicans in Cleveland and the Democrats in Philadelphia next week has nothing to do with Trump. It’s that Republicans have no one comparable to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or Joe Biden to call on to speak – figures of national stature, wildly popular in the party, and mostly not toxic among swing voters, if not popular among them.
The conventions’ other focus takes place far from the podium. These get-togethers serve the same function as the national meetings of other organizations. They’re an opportunity to conduct business, and to renew or form close ties with their peers from across the country. Political parties in the U.S. are in large part composed of informally organized networks of various party actors – politicians, campaign and governing professionals, donors and activists, party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press. These people might discuss a new pollster, or compare notes on getting similar bills through state legislatures. They learn the language that Republicans or Democrats from other states use to talk about policy.
This year, we’ve heard how many Republicans will be avoiding their convention because they reject the party’s nominee. Still, plenty of party actors will be there. And to the extent Trump has brought in new people who want to commit to the party, Cleveland will be an opportunity for them to start on that path. In Philadelphia, something similar will take place involving Bernie Sanders supporters. Those who are newcomers and wish to become not just Bernie fans, but Bernie Sanders Democrats, will move toward doing so. To the extent they join the party network, they will make the Democratic Party more of a Sanders party.
All of this is important for 2016 and the future, even though most of it doesn’t seem dramatic. So don’t let anyone tell you the conventions don’t matter.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.