For many convention-goers, the upcoming Republican and Democratic National Conventions will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For UW-Madison political science professor Byron Shafer, the trip will be quite familiar.
Shafer, whose primary research interests include political parties and national party conventions, has attended both conventions in each election cycle since 1980. This year’s cycle, which rolls through Cleveland and Philadelphia, will be his nineteenth and twentieth conventions, respectively. The quadrennial events are opportunities to conduct fieldwork for various research projects.
Shafer is the author of “Bifurcated Politics: Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention,” one of the leading texts on conventions. He noted that some aspects of the convention have stuck around, while some things have changed significantly.
“When I started going, we were already past the era where people did not know who the nominee was going into the convention,” he said. “At that time though, there were still rules fights and platform disagreements that, if they were big enough, could make their way to the convention floor and break the nomination loose.”
That nearly happened during the 1980 Democratic nomination, where supporters of then-Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts wanted a rules change to allow delegates to vote with their conscience and not for Jimmy Carter.
That instance is similar to the 2016 Republican convention, where remnants of the Never Trump movement hope to get enough supporters on the rules committee to send Donald Trump’s nomination to the convention floor.
Shafer said it is extremely unlikely for that to happen, as delegates, who often are party officials or elected officials, usually have to vote with how their state voted in order to stay in favor with party leaders and constituents at home.
Disagreements on party platforms, the statement of principles and beliefs, have persisted for much longer, according to Shafer. Trump has sometimes come at-odds with many parts of the Republican platform, including free trade and an anti-abortion stance. Shafer says that this should not be a huge problem for Trump, as candidates don’t always point to the platform as their mantra.
In fact, during the 1996 Republican nomination, Bob Dole told reporters who questioned the differences between his platform and the party platform that he would look at the platform after the convention, essentially dismissing the platform’s importance to his campaign.
This year’s Republican convention has a vastly different speakers list and attendees list, according to Shafer. Many familiar Wisconsinites, including Gov. Scott Walker, Democratic Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy will speak, but many senators, including Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have been hesitant to attend.
“For most politicians, the conventions are the biggest audience one will ever have so you never turn it down,” Shafer said. “When people don’t come to the event, it’s very unusual.”
Walker, who ended his campaign abruptly in September as Trump continued to pick up momentum, will have to balance not going after the presumptive nominee while also touting his own mainstream Republican message.
“When I think of who the reliable people are to talk about what a great opportunity Donald Trump is, I would not go to Scott Walker,” Shafer said. “But it will be interesting to see how he handles it. You look bad if you appear to look critical, so he might try to talk more about the Republican platform and not the nominee himself. He has to have something in mind.”
Most conventions follow the basic outline of looking back on the party’s accomplishments the first night, Shafer said. The parties then pivot toward the general election contest the second and third nights, with keynote speakers touting their party and the nominee, which all brings momentum for the nominee’s acceptance speech on the last night of the convention. Parties usually develop what the theme of the campaigns will be going into November as well.
“There certainly may be some resurgences from past conventions this year,” Shafer said. “But each convention is a bit different, so we really don’t know.”