National party conventions haven’t changed much since the 1970s, when primaries began to replace smoke-filled rooms as the chief mechanism for selecting Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
They have become giant TV studios.
The big decisions — namely the selection of the presidential and vice presidential nominees — generally are made weeks, if not months, beforehand. Dissent and drama are heavily discouraged. The main mission is message promotion — through as many media echo chambers as possible.
But that doesn’t mean nothing valuable can be gleaned from conventions. Last week in Tampa, through time spent with the Texas Republican delegation, a few lessons have emerged:
Peeved Paul supporters
On the surface, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, exited the 2012 presidential race with more of a whimper than a bang. He never came close to winning, and his contingent in Tampa had far too little pull to get much more than a little libertarian window dressing on the party platform. Any splash he made at the convention happened off-stage because GOP nominee Mitt Romney refused to let him on it.
But Paul’s loyal supporters were deeply offended by the way they and their candidate were treated at the convention, and they can still be spoilers in this election. They were livid that Paul was not allowed to speak to them inside the convention hall and fiercely objected to a rules overhaul designed to give presidential candidates more power to select national delegates.
Maybe that’s just what happens to losers, but lingering bitterness could hurt Romney in November. Although few of Paul’s supporters are likely to support President Obama, in a close election, the president could still benefit. That’s because some Paul supporters are saying they will write Paul's name onto the 2012 ballot. Other Paul backers are likely to vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson, about whom Paul is saying nice things.
“I have no intention of casting a vote for Mitt Romney at this point,” said Republican delegate Cara Bonin of Alpine, Texas. “I would have to say Gary Johnson is where I consider myself voting at this point.”
The Ryan factor
When Romney chose U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to be his running mate, Democrats cheered. Surely his budget-slashing rhetoric and his proposal to give cash vouchers instead of guaranteed coverage to future Medicare recipients would become a huge liability for Romney, they said.
But the reception Ryan got inside the convention hall Aug. 29 was evidence that Romney’s choice has electrified the party’s conservative grassroots. And because the last several presidential elections have highlighted the importance of an energized base, the Ryan pick seems smarter after the convention than it did before it.
The selection demonstrated to many conservatives — concerned that Romney would go wobbly on their bedrock issues — that he had some guts.
“It shows that Gov. Romney was willing to take a chance and a strong stand — not pick an incredibly safe choice,” said delegate James Dickey of Bee Cave, Texas. “I think it did definitely ratchet up the enthusiasm some.”
Perks follow power
Of the four largest U.S. states, Texas is the only one that is reliably Republican. But unquestioned loyalty isn’t much better than perennial infidelity when it comes to the way states are treated at political conventions.
Unless you can be courted, you are ignored.
Most of the prestige and power is concentrated in the swing states and the home states of the nominee and party honchos. So it was no surprise that Massachusetts and Michigan, Romney’s home state and birthplace, respectively, got great digs. Or that Wisconsin, home of Ryan and party chairman Reince Priebus, got a hotel steps from the Tampa Bay Times Forum and prime floor space.
It probably didn’t help that Paul and Gov. Rick Perry both tried to take down Romney in the GOP primary, but the hotel assignment and the real estate on the convention floor — about as far from the stage as you could get — bordered on punitive.
The first sign of trouble could be detected during check-in at the Saddlebrook Resort some 30 miles from Tampa. Guests were assigned to “clusters” of rooms so far from the front desk that they had to be ferried back and forth in gas-powered golf carts or, in some cases, a shuttle.
To get to the convention hall, delegates had to take a cart to the lobby, a bus to the “transportation center” in Tampa, and then another bus to the actual convention hall — with plenty of walking in between. After the first events concluded at about 11 p.m. Aug. 28, some delegates did not get to their rooms until 3 a.m.
Over the last nine conventions, six were conducted with a Bush on the ballot, so Texas Republicans can remember what it was like to be pampered. And now they know what it’s like to get the shaft.
Move over, Rick Perry
Ever since President George W. Bush left for the White House after the 2000 presidential election, Perry has been the star of the Texas Republican Party.
That torch has passed, at least for now, to Ted Cruz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. While the GOP establishment ganged up on him, Cruz deftly courted Tea Party activists and crushed the better funded Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the primary.
At the convention, most networks ignored Cruz’s prime-time speech, but that hasn't dimmed his fortunes. He was a coveted guest on national talk shows and got mobbed by delegates all over the convention floor in Tampa. There's even talk emerging that he might make a good president himself some day.
“He’s a rock star,” said state Republican Party chairman Steve Munisteri. “He attracts huge crowds. The enthusiasm level is high. It’s all anyone wants to talk about.”
Move over, Ted Cruz
Cruz, though he has never held elective office, is the runaway favorite to win in November against Democrat Paul Sadler. But senators serve six-year terms, meaning a Sen. Cruz wouldn’t be on the ballot in 2014.
But there’s one candidate whose name generated almost as much enthusiasm as Cruz: his former boss, Attorney General Greg Abbott. Though Abbott has lost some key court rulings lately, the Republican grassroots showed him a lot of love in Tampa. Even the Ron Paul devotees like him.
All that and his $15 million bank account easily make Abbott the most formidable competitor in the 2014 elections. The burning question: Will there be an opening at the top?
A Texas logjam
Dewhurst delighted Texas reporters by interrupting the tedium of nonstop speechifying with some actual news in Florida.
But the lieutenant governor’s announcement that he is planning to run for re-election in 2014 landed like a thud with many delegates. Perry’s intention to run for a fourth term hasn’t exactly sparked much collective enthusiasm, either.
What became clear in Tampa is that if nobody blinks, the 2014 GOP primaries are going to pit some of the biggest Republican stars against one another. And as they say in investing, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
The fight for Hispanic votes
Two Texans were given major speaking roles at their respective conventions — Cruz in Tampa, and Democrat Julián Castro in Charlotte.
While they are on opposite sides of virtually every partisan flashpoint, both men are Hispanic — and their parties are fighting tooth and nail to attract more Latino voters to the polls.
Republicans have signed up George P. Bush, whose mother was born in Mexico, to raise money and conduct Hispanic voter outreach. They also are microtargeting Hispanic households whose consumer habits suggest conservative leanings.
Democrats have focused their ire on Cruz, even questioning whether he’s really Hispanic — despite the fact that his father was born in Cuba.
With Hispanics already in the majority in the Texas public school system, don’t expect this fight to fade soon.
Vouchers are back
The “V” word has all but faded from the Texas body politic in the last few years, thanks to rural Republicans joining together with Democrats to oppose private school vouchers.
But in Tampa, Dewhurst and Perry both said the time is right to make another big push for “school choice,” up to and including vouchers. They point to the successful passage of voucher legislation in Louisiana and say that the election of new conservative lawmakers this year will make the 2013 legislative session an ideal time to make another big push.
With Perry promising passage from his bully pulpit and Dewhurst goading the Senate into action, the pressure could get intense in the Texas House, where Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I don’t want to give the impression that bills or new reforms or new ideas to improve education start or stop at a voucher proposal or at expanded choice,” Straus told reporters in Tampa. “There’s not a one-size fits all. … We have to be patient and receptive.”