The era of the four-day political convention is drawing to a close.
Even before Tropical Storm Isaac forced the GOP to cancel the first day of the Republican National Convention, political operatives on both sides of the aisle were questioning the usefulness of locking down an entire city for a weeklong meeting that could be accomplished in a weekend.
In fact, on Friday, the Republican National Convention Rules Committee voted to appoint a commission to study the financing, operations, and future of political conventions—and report back by the spring of 2014, said former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan.
He said that it takes about $120 million to put on the show, including $18 million in federal funding, $50 million in federal security money, and $55 million from the host committee.
Meanwhile, each of the three TV networks will air about three hours of prime-time coverage for each convention, down from four hours in 2008. NBC won’t broadcast anything from Charlotte on Sept. 5, opting instead to air the first game of the NFL season (the network will make up the time on Thursday).
To adjust to the truncated media coverage and the cost of hosting such a huge production, Republicans are considering alternatives that might include multiple sites in different cities, with each site hosting one night of the festivities. “I don’t think we’re wed to four days forever. The Democrats didn’t do four days this time, and we didn’t really do four days in Minneapolis,” Duncan said. “It’s certainly conceivable to do this in a shorter period of time.”
Under Duncan’s watch in 2008, the GOP shortened its convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul after Hurricane Gustav slammed into the Gulf Coast. This year, Democrats have shortened their Charlotte confab to three days.
“The conventions are so played out. In this electronic media world … you could do this in a day,” Alex Vogel, a senior-RNC-official-turned lobbyist, said. “I really question the long-term durability of a three- or four-day convention—and whether, from a messaging standpoint, it even matters.”
That’s especially true in this cycle. The conventions used to be where the country met the candidates, but after countless Republican primary debates and millions of dollars spent on advertising, most Americans are already familiar with Mitt Romney’s story and message. And the country has had more than four years to get to know President Obama, whose team has been aggressively campaigning for over a year.
And then, of course, there’s the nonstop online and cable-news coverage and the ceaseless chattering of the Twitterverse, which has created an environment of political perma-coverage that keeps campaign news front and center.
“The first day [of the convention] is really the equivalent of a political appendix,” said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane. “Does it have an impact on the campaign or the election? No.”
Of course, host cities’ desire to keep folks in town for as long as possible and the convention’s four days of unfiltered messaging are strong arguments against shortening the events.
But some traditions certainly could be cut to save time. Lehane, for one, questioned the practice of having dozens of speakers who aren’t covered on TV—unless they go off-message.
With Congress mulling a cut to the conventions’ public funding and a shrinking pool of cities that can raise the millions needed to host the events, it seems inevitable that the parties will have to rethink.
“It could happen as quickly as the next convention,” Lehane said.