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CNN Student News One-Sheet: National Political Conventions

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  • Use this One-Sheet to help your students understand political conventions
  • Originally, delegates nominated candidates at the convention
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(CNN Student News) -- Introduction
If you have ever watched the Democratic or Republican political conventions, you have probably noticed that they have all the makings of a big party: a crowd, balloons and lots of noise. It wasn't always this way. Originally, the purpose of a convention was to nominate a political party's candidates for president and vice president. That's still the purpose, but today candidates are chosen in primaries and caucuses in the months leading up to the convention. The big party provides a media showcase that advertises the party's platform and presents the nominees to the public.

Who attends the convention?
By casting ballots for one candidate or another during the primary season, voters are actually selecting delegates to the party conventions. Conventions are not open to the public. The public watches through the eyes of 15,000 broadcast and print journalists. In addition to delegates and the press, events of this magnitude require an army of volunteers. More than 40,000 people may actually be inside the two conventions, while any demonstrators who turn up will march and rally outside to promote their causes.

What happens at the convention?
Party conventions usually last four days. During the day, committees meet to certify delegates, deliver reports and determine the party's platform. During prime-time viewing, the convention becomes a media event. There is a keynote speech by a prominent party leader, and the alphabetical roll call vote on the third night, when each state gets a moment in the spotlight. With the nominee already selected, the only suspense is which state will put the nominee over the top? On the fourth and final night, delegates affirm the vice presidential nominee, and the party's nominee makes an acceptance speech. Then, if past practice is any indication, 100,000 balloons will drop from the ceiling, signifying that the party is over but the general election season has begun. The Democrats have said they may do away with the balloons this year in the interest of staging an eco-friendly convention.

How much does it all cost? Who pays for it?
The 2004 conventions each cost more than $90 million. Private contributions, state and local government assistance and federal funds pay the bills. The local economy benefits as convention attendees eat at restaurants, book hotel rooms and enjoy what entertainment the host city has to offer.

Who benefits from a convention?
The host city may get an economic boost, but the main benefactor is the party's presidential nominee. National political conventions often provide a "bounce," or temporary uptick, in their nominee's poll numbers. Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton trailed in the polls until their conventions and then grabbed the lead after they were officially nominated. Since 1936, the party not occupying the White House has held its convention first. That often provides a bounce in poll numbers that lasts until the incumbent party holds its convention, which may then receive a bounce of its own.


1832: The Democratic Party holds the first presidential convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Vice President Martin Van Buren is the nominee. He wins in November.

1856: Senator John Fremont is the nominee when the Republican Party holds its first convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is defeated by Democrat James Buchanan in the fall.

1860: Southern Democrats bolt the convention in Charleston, South Carolina, after delegates refused to accept a Southern plan for introducing slavery into the country's newly-acquired territories. Six weeks later, Northern Democrats meet in Baltimore to nominate Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Southern Democrats pick Vice President John C. Breckinridge at a separate convention. The Republican nominee is Abraham Lincoln.

1888: At the Republican convention in Chicago, Illinois, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass becomes the first African-American to have his name placed in nomination by a major party. The party's nominee that year, and the eventual winner, was Senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana.

1896: Democrats nominate William Jennings Bryan, the youngest presidential nominee ever, at the age of 36.

1912: The Republican Party splits at the convention. While incumbent President William H. Taft receives the nomination, former President Teddy Roosevelt, angered by Taft's stand on social and economic issues, forms the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party shortly thereafter.

1924: The GOP convention is the first national nominating convention broadcast on radio. The current occupant of the White House, Calvin Coolidge, is the nominee.

1924: Democrats gather in New York for what becomes the longest convention ever. The party nominates John W. Davis after 17 days and 103 ballots.

1944: New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey becomes the first Republican candidate to accept his party's presidential nomination in person at the convention.

1948: Republican delegates nominate Dewey after three ballots, the first time the GOP has re-nominated a previously defeated presidential candidate. After 1948, no other Republican nominee requires more than one ballot to win the party's nomination.

1948: The Democratic Party splits three ways: Former Vice President Henry Wallace, considered too far left by many mainstream Democrats, forms the Progressive Party; Southerners rally around the segregationist platform of South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond's States' Rights Party. Delegates to the party's convention in Philadelphia re-nominate President Truman.

1952: Both parties court Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who eventually runs as a Republican. The Democrats pick Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson at their convention in Chicago, the last time the party needs more than one ballot to select a nominee.

1956: Stevenson is nominated again and allows Democratic convention delegates to pick his running mate.

1960: John F. Kennedy, who at 46 will become the youngest person to be elected president, accepts the nomination at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California, in front of an estimated 80,000 people.

1960: Republicans nominate Richard Nixon, the first Republican vice president nominated for president.

1968: Outside the Democratic national convention, Chicago police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators clash in ugly confrontations broadcast on national television. A federal commission later terms the incident a "police riot." Delegates defeat an anti-war platform plank and nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey to replace President Lyndon B. Johnson, who decided not to seek re-election. Humphrey narrowly loses to Richard Nixon in the general election.

1972: South Dakota Sen. George McGovern defeats Humphrey in the early hours of the Democratic convention's last day in Miami, Florida. After 1972, the modern presidential primary system determines the Democratic nominees well before the summer conventions.

1976: President Ford narrowly defeats Ronald Reagan on the first ballot, 1,187 to 1,070. In the years to follow, Republican voters will pick their party's presumptive Republican nominee during the primaries and caucuses.


1984: At the Democratic convention in San Francisco, California, Walter Mondale names New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, making her the first woman nominated on a major party's national ticket.

(Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica Online, CNN Library,,

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