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.   Nonetheless, these quadrennial gatherings still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties and can provide a boost for the nominee.

Aug. 24-27, 2020
, NC
Committee on Arrangements
Charlotte 2020 Host Committee

July 13-16, 2020
Milwaukee, WI
Democratic National Convention Committee
Milwaukee 2020 DNC Host Committee

The Changing Character of Conventions

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.

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.

For a while it appeared that 2016 might be different for the Republicans.  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.

Even as rubber stamps, conventions still fulfill a vital function in the life of the political parties.  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 return to their communities energized for the fall campaign and, if all goes well, the presidential ticket emerges with a "convention bounce."

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 there 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, will 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 the convention will be held from July 13-16, 2020, before the Olympics (+).  The last time a major party held its convention this early was in 1992 when Democrats gathered in New York City to nominate Bill Clinton, also from July 13-16.  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.

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 (+). 

The Charlotte 2020 Host Committee is headed by John Lassiter, president of Carolina Legal Staffing.  In Milwaukee Alex Lasry, senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks, chaired the bid committee, which is now the Milwaukee 2020 DNC 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.  In 2016 the host cities of Cleveland and Philadelphia each received $49.9 million federal grants for security (1, 2).

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.

Interest Groups

Interest groups work 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.  Fortunately C-SPAN does cover these gatherings, as they provide one of the best opportunities to learn about ideas and viewpoints beyond those of the Democratic and Republican parties.

2020 Libertarian National Convention

Austin, TX - May 21-25, 2020

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 (+).