McCain’s acceptance address was seen by 38.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen, just slightly above the 38.4 million who watched Obama’s speech. And Palin had 37.2 million viewers for hers. Combined, Nielsen reported that McCain and Palin had 76.2 million viewers and Obama and Joe Biden had 62.4 million. And the actual numbers were even higher because Nielsen does not count all the networks that aired the speeches.
The very size of these audiences, ironically, has combined with the move to primaries to drain the conventions of their drama. The Founders never thought the public would have much to do with picking presidents. They expected most presidents to be selected by the House of Representatives after the Electoral College deadlocked. But, instead, nominees were picked by congressional caucuses--“King Caucus”--until 1824. Then brokered conventions had their day, from 1832 to 1968. That ushered in the modern era of primaries doing what conventions used to do. In 1960, John F. Kennedy had to face only two contested primaries. That was up to 10 in 1968. But Romney this year had to maneuver through 38 primaries and 13 caucus states. It doesn’t leave much for his convention.
Republicans were the first to understand the evolution from nominating fight to TV show. Ron Walker, GOP convention manager in 1984 and an organizer at seven different conventions, helped Republicans write a minute-by-minute script for Miami in 1972. “We scripted that thing down to a gnat’s ass,” he boasted. But Democrats were slower to catch on. In an interview in 1996, Robert Strauss said that it was not until 1974, when he was Democratic National Committee chairman, that he “came to the decision that this was purely ... a television show.” He called it a turning point for the party when he interviewed the top ad agencies in New York “to find myself a television producer” for the next convention.
Today, there is no question the production is smoother, certainly since the days of that first televised convention in Philadelphia. Convention organizers that year, wanting to cast Democrats as the party of peace, got the bright idea of putting boxes of live doves on stage until the right moment when they would be released to dramatically and majestically flutter skyward. Unfortunately, they didn’t comprehend the intense heat of those early television lights. When the right moment arrived, the doves were released. Half already were dead. Those still clinging to life staggered upward only to die when they hit the hot lights, their bodies falling on the delegates. Others, in a final release, relieved themselves, soiling the heads of many delegates--including the bald head of Minority Leader Sam Rayburn who could be heard cursing.
Modern-day planners aren’t likely to let that happen again. But just think of the ratings.