With the advent of television and the widespread adoption of primaries, the national parties' nominating conventions have largely been reduced from decision-making bodies to a rubber stamp function.  The conventions are, in fact, tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.   These quadrennial gatherings fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties and can provide a boost for the nominee, but much was lost in the COVID-reconfigured 2020 conventions.


Aug. 24, 2020
Business Meeting
Charlotte, NC
Aug. 24- 27, 2020
Washington, DC

July 13-16, 2020
Aug. 17-20, 2020
Milwaukee, WI
virtual/Wilmington, DE

Conventions in a Time of COVID-19

In the year of COVID-19, the major party conventions took a much, much different form than in past.  The pandemic posed unique challenges to the respective planning teams, and the events they came up with were dramatically different. 

Democrats went first and opted for a largely virtual event, arguing that public health considerations were paramount.  The result was a reasonable facsimile that inevitably fell short of "the real deal"—the in-person convention experience—in many respects.  Instead of an arena filled with the boisterous energy of delegates cheering, waving signs, and chanting, many speeches were delivered in near empty halls; a video wall provided 16 to 30 frames of people cheering.  Instead of journalists from around the world, network skyboxes, and photographers roaming the convention floor, a limited number of reporters covered major events.  Democrats did seek to engage constituency groups in virtual meetings and watch parties.  Instead of parties and receptions in restaurants around town there were virtual events. 

Republicans took a very different approach.  While many of the speeches were delivered in the empty Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Vice President Pence spoke in front of an audience at Fort McHenry, and on the final evening, there was a "pull all stops" spectacle on the South Lawn of the White House.  Critics questioned the legality of the event, the blurring of the lines between campaigning and governing, and the flaunting of the CDC's social distancing guidelines, but the imagery was stunning.  In front of an audience of about 1,500 people, Trump spoke for about 70 minutes followed by fireworks at the Washington Monument and a performance by tenor Christopher Macchio.

For both teams of planners there were hopes that the pandemic would subside and there were many twists and turns on the road to convention week.  Democrats moved the dates of their convention from July 13-16, 2020 to the week of Aug. 17 and also said they were exploring all options to avoiding risks to public health, from "adjusting the convention’s format to crowd size and schedule (1, 2)."  On June 24 Convention planners announced a "Convention Across America" plan, stating that "host city Milwaukee would anchor the events for the week, and that programming would include both live broadcasts and curated content from Milwaukee and other satellite cities, locations and landmarks across the country."  Under the plan "state delegations should not plan to travel to Milwaukee and should plan to conduct their official convention business remotely."  On Aug. 5 the DNCC announced that convention speakers including Vice President Biden would not travel to Milwaukee, completing the transition to a virtual convention.

Republicans, led by President Trump, vowed to proceed with an full in-person event.  On July 20, 2018 the RNC had announced Charlotte, NC as the site of its 2020 national convention.  In late May 2020 Trump raised doubts about Charlotte, and on June 2, with less than three months to go until the gathering, he announced he was moving the convention to a city to be determined because North Carolina officials would not guarantee the convention venue could to be fully occupied (+).  On June 11 the RNC announced business meetings would take place in Charlotte, while the celebration of Trump's re-nomination and acceptance speech would occur in Jacksonville, FL.  However in the succeeding weeks COVID-19 cases spiked in Florida, and on July 23 Trump announced he would not go ahead with the Jacksonville events.  Trump weighed the idea of delivering his acceptance speech at Gettysburg, PA or at the White House, before settling on the White House.

Leading up to the national conventions, many delegate selection gatherings and state party conventions were reduced to virtual events.  In addition the three major third parties held virtual conventions, the Constitution Party telephonically, the Libertarian Party via Zoom Webinar with an in-person component in July, and the Green Party via Zoom. 

The Role and Changing Character of Conventions

The national nominating conventions have evolved over the decades and are now largely reduced to rubber stamps, but they still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties.  While the televised view of a convention is dominated by scenes of delegates on the convention floor and speakers on the stage, in many ways, the essence of a convention is what happens off of the convention floor.  In the lead-up to the convention, the drafting of the party platform provides interests aligned with the party a forum to present their concerns.  During the days of the convention itself, hundreds of events, caucuses, receptions, breakfasts, fundraisers, and parties take place in the hotels surrounding the convention hall.  At the end of the convention, party activists energized by their convention experience return to their communities focused on the fall campaign and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a "convention bounce."

In the past, the national convention served as a decision-making body, actually determining the party's nominee.  For example, the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York lasted 17 days and required 103 ballots to select John Davis as the nominee.  The last Democratic Convention to go beyond one ballot occurred in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot; the 1948 Republican Convention went to a third ballot before New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey won the nomination.  Republicans had a close vote in 1976 in Kansas City when President Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan by 1,187 votes to 1,070 votes.

In 2016 the unorthodox candidacy of Donald Trump generated a significant number of disaffected Republicans (#NeverTrump) and it appeared quite possible that no candidate would achieve the 1,237 delegates needed to win the party's nomination.  In March and April 2016 there was a lot of talk about the prospect of a contested convention in Cleveland, but it ended rather quickly following Trump's win in the May 3 Indiana primary and his assumption of the mantle of presumptive nominee.

Again in 2019 and early 2020 there was talk that the Democratic nomination might be decided at the convention.  Observers postulated that none of the candidates was strong enough to secure a majority of the delegates in the primaries (>), and that some of the candidates with less support would stay in the race and possibly play a power broker role at the convention.  However, experience suggested that this speculation would prove baseless and that things would likely fall into place for one or another of the candidates.  That is what happened as former Vice President Joe Biden won most of the primaries on Super Tuesday, mini-Super Tuesday and March 17.

Two significant changes have occurred in recent decades.  First, most of the national convention delegates are now selected by voters in primary contests rather than by party caucuses and meetings.  Second, with the advent of television, conventions have become tightly scripted made-for-TV spectacles.  Each party seeks to present itself in the best possible light and to demonstrate a united front rather than to hash out its differences. 

One could argue that modern day conventions are little more than four-day advertisements for the political parties.  Because there is no longer much suspense, conventions have suffered declining viewership, coverage by the major networks has been cut, and some observers have suggested that the conventions themselves should be cut to three days.  The pandemic forced convention organizers to consider a wide range of options and make multiple adjustments to their plans; those experiences may lead to changes in future conventions.

Site Selection

Both parties conduct lengthy site selection processes to determine which cities will host their conventions. 

On the Republican side, in Jan. 2018 the Republican National Committee sent RFPs and documentation to cities capable of hosting a national convention.  Veteran RNC Committeeman Ron Kaufman (MA) oversaw the process.  In Spring he said he said he was encouraged by the level of interest, but when it came to actually submitting a bid there actually did not seem to be much interest in hosting the Republican  gathering.  Organizers in Charlotte, NC submitted their  bid on April 2, 2018.  Nevada Republicans made an effort to attract the convention to Las Vegas, and President Trump reportedly was interested in the idea, but advisors did not favor it.  Members of the RNC's site selection committee visited Charlotte on May 16-18.  The Charlotte City Council approved contracts to host the Convention in a 6-5 vote on July 16 (+).  The RNC finalized the deal at its summer meeting in Austin, TX, and on July 20 announced Charlotte as the site of its 2020 national convention (+).

In late April 2018 the Democratic National Committee sent out RFPs to eight cities: Atlanta, GA; Birmingham, AL; Denver, CO; Houston, TX; Miami Beach, FL; Milwaukee, WI; New York, NY; and San Francisco, CA.  On June 20, Politico reported that the DNC had narrowed its list to four cities: Houston, Miami Beach, Milwaukee and Denver, but the Denver Post then reported Denver had withdrawn its bid because the planned dates would not work for the city.  This left three finalists: Houston, Miami Beach and Milwaukee.  The 16-person site selection committee visited Houston on Aug. 15-17, and Milwaukee on Aug. 28-29, but did not get to Miami Beach until Oct. 17-18.  All three cities sought to woo support at the DNC summer meeting in Chicago on Aug. 23-25.  In December smaller group from the DNC made a second tour of the finalist cities, visiting Milwaukee on Dec. 3, Miami Beach on Dec. 7 and Houston on Dec. 14.  Milwaukee was seen as the frontrunner, and it was not surprising when on Mar. 11, 2019 the DNC announced the city as the site of its convention (+).

Timing of the conventions is another important factor.  The Summer Olympic Games, were to be held in Tokyo from July 24-Aug. 9, 2020 (+), and typically neither party wants to compete with those.  On June 15, 2018 the DNC announced its convention would be held from July 13-16, 2020, before the Olympics.  The last time a major party held its convention that early was in 1992 when Democrats gathered in New York City to nominate Bill Clinton, also from July 13-16.  Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and on Apr. 2, 2020 the DNC announced it was postponing the event to the week of Aug. 17.  On Oct. 1, 2018, the RNC announced the 2020 Republican National Convention will be held from Aug. 24-27, 2020 (+).


Once the host cities has been selected, the respective convention committees start work on the details of how to meet housing, transportation, security needs of more than 40,000 people.  Republicans have a Committee on Arrangements and Democrats have a Democratic National Convention Committee.  On July 26, 2018 the RNC announced that Toni Anne Dashiell, RNC committeewoman for Texas, as chair of the party's Committee on Arrangements, responsible for organizing the Convention.  On Mar. 26, 2019 the DNC announced Joe Solmonese, who has served as transition chair at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, president of Human Rights Campaign and CEO of EMILY's List, as CEO of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee.  Even as the primaries unfold, sizable teams are at work in Charlotte and Milwaukee planning for the conventions.

As important as the party convention committees are host committees.  [11 CFR 9008.52].  These non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(3) committees fulfill a range of functions.  Early on they promote the city's bid.  If the city is successful, the host committee sets to work raising money and in-kind contributions, recruiting volunteers and organizing events and activities to welcome delegates and media.  Corporate contributions to host committees and "municipal funds" have comprised an increasing share of spending on conventions, leading for some to call for stricter regulations.  The Campaign Finance Institute has argued that "policies of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Federal Election Commission (FEC) on 'host committee' fundraising are seriously outmoded" and provide a loophole for tens of millions of dollars of "soft money contributions to party-produced extravaganzas."  Taxpayer funds may be involved as well; for the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania DCED provided a $10 million grant for the host committee (+). 

Recent Democratic and Republican conventions have been designated as National Special Security Events, meaning that the U.S. Secret Service takes the lead role in assuring the safety and security of convention-goers.  The effort is complex and involves months of planning and dozens of entities and agencies.  For 2020 the host cities of Charlotte and Milwaukee each were initially authorized to receive $50 million federal grants for security (+), but as the pandemic took hold and convention plans were downsized, the grants were substantially reduced (1, 2 [PDFs]).

Party Platforms

The platform outlines the party's philosophy and priorities and is prepared in advance of the convention.  Truth be told, party platforms are not widely read documents, but the process of writing a platform affords the party the opportunity to publicly seek input from its various constituencies.  During platform discussions some points of contention do arise, but generally any major dissension is ironed out before the platform reaches the convention.  To further party unity the Biden campaign established task forces with Biden and Sanders members to work on platform recommendations (+).  By contrast, Republicans punted on the platform process.  In a June 10, 2020 meeting the RNC executive committee unanimously decided Republicans will stick with their 2016 platform:

"The Convention Committee on Platform will not convene during the Rule 37(e) Convention Proceedings and the Rule 37(e) Convention will not adopt a new platform for the Republican Party in 2020. The Rule 37(e) Convention will adjourn with the 2016 Republican Platform continuing to serve as the official platform of the Republican Party until the 2024 Republican National Convention adopts a new platform pursuant to The Rules of the Republican Party. Any motion for the Rule 37(e) Convention to amend the 2016 Platform or to adopt a new platform, including any motion to suspend the Procedures that will allow doing so, will be ruled out of order."

Interest Groups

Interest groups work the conventions on many different levels.  Before the convention starts, interest groups weigh in on the party platform.  During the convention, groups organize receptions, forums, caucuses and meetings; some set up hospitality suites.  Also on hand at the convention is the opposing party, which generally sets up a communications shop and provides daily briefings and rapid response for reporters.  With thousands of media representatives on hand, many groups mobilize and try to get out their messages to a broader audience.  There are ad campaigns, special events and other creative efforts, and some groups take to the streets.


Conventions have long attracted an assortment of demonstrators.  One need only recall Chicago in 1968.  Nowadays convention planners provide specially designated protest areas near the convention halls as venues for various groups to make their points, but these are caged in and may not be accessible to convention attendees, so the action has tended to occur on the streets.  Most protesters are peaceful, but there are always a few troublemakers with destructive intentions.  

Atmosphere and Dynamics

Each convention city and venue poses a unique set of challenges and creates a distinctive atmosphere.  Heading into the convention, the soon-to-be formally nominated candidate announces his (or her) vice presidential running mate and generally does some kind of tour hitting key states.  Delegates arrive and activity begins.  Being a delegate is an exhilarating but exhausting experience.  A successful convention energizes attendees and activists, gets the message out to the broader public, and sends the ticket into the fall campaign with the convention bounce.  In 2016, the delegate experience in Philadelphia was rather different than that in Cleveland, and not just in terms of the tone.  In Cleveland the activity was concentrated in downtown; Philadelphia is a much larger city, and things were more spread out, including the necessity of getting out to the Wells Fargo Center south of downtown.

Economic Impact

Despite the infrastructure demands and security challenges, hosting a convention can provide a substantial economic boost to a city. 

Following the Republican Convention in Cleveland, the Host Committee commissioned two analyses, using different methodologies, of the convention's economic impact on the region (+).  The Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University used a micro analysis based on questionnaires completed by visitors and estimated $67.8 million in direct spending and a total economic impact of $142.2 million in a seven-county region [PDF].  Tourism Economics used a macro analysis based on an economic impact model and found $110.1 million in direct spending and $188.4 million total economic impact on the region [PDF].  For the Democratic Convention, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau reported direct convention-related spending of $132.9 million and total economic impact of $230.9 million [PDF].

Third Party Conventions

While the big networks have been giving less coverage to major party conventions in recent years, they generally have ignored third party conventions altogether.  In past C-SPAN has covered these gatherings, which provide one of the best opportunities to learn about ideas and viewpoints beyond those of the Democratic and Republican parties.  Due to the pandemic all three of the major third parties cancelled in-person meetings for selecting their nominees, although the Libertarian Party planned an in-person component.

2020 Constitution Party National Convention
Hilton Union Station in Saint Louis, MO - telephonically May 1-2, 2020

2020 Libertarian National Convention
JW Marriott in Austin, TX - May 21-25, 2020 postponed
online session May 22-24, 2020
additional convention business Orlando, FL July 7-12, 2020

2020 Green Party National Convention
Wayne State University in Detroit, MI - July 9-12, 2020 virtual

Sites of Recent Major Party Conventions

Cleveland, OH July 18-21
Philadelphia, PA July 25-28
Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL Aug. 27-30 Charlotte, NC  Sept. 4-6
2008 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN Sept. 1-4 Denver, CO  Aug. 25-28
2004 New York, NY  Aug. 30-Sept. 2 Boston, MA  July 26-29
2000 Philadelphia, PA  July 31-Aug. 3 Los Angeles, CA  Aug. 14-17
1996 San Diego, CA  Aug 12-15 Chicago, IL  Aug. 26-29
1992 Houston, TX  Aug. 17-20 New York, NY  July 13-16
1988 New Orleans, LA  Aug. 15-18 Atlanta, GA  July 18-21
1984 Dallas, TX San Francisco, CA
1980 Detroit, MI New York, NY
1976 Kansas City, MO New York, NY
1972 Miami Beach, FL Miami Beach, FL
1968 Miami Beach, FL Chicago, IL
1964 San Francisco, CA Atlantic City, NJ
1960 Chicago, IL Los Angeles, CA

Through 2012 the major party conventions had been funded in part by grants from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the $3 income tax check-off).  The grants, set out in the Federal Election Campaign Act, started at $2.2 million back in 1976 and were increased a couple of times in addition to being adjusted for cost-of-living increases.  To prepare their 2012 conventions, the Democrats and Republicans each received grants of about $17.7 million from the Treasury.  Starting in 2016, as a result of H.R. 2019: Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, signed into law on April 3, 2014, the national party committees no longer received federal grants to help them put on their conventions.  That left the question of how to make up for the lost funding.  On Oct. 9, 2014 the FEC, responding to an Advisory Opinion Request (AOR) filed jointly by the DNC and RNC, ruled that the national party committees could establish convention committees that can raise federal funds under separate limits.  The decision was met with disfavor by campaign finance watchdog groups (+).