Planning presidential conventions

August 2, 2020

Presidential nominating conventions are a major moment for any campaign. Reverend Leah Daughtry and Maria Cino served, respectively, as CEO’s of Democratic and Republican conventions, and join host David Marchick on Transition Lab to discuss their experiences. The two women talk about the role of conventions in political campaigns, whether they give a boost to the candidates, and how the coronavirus pandemic will change conventions this year and in the future. 

Read the highlights:

Marchick asked about the purpose of political conventions and whether they still matter 

Cino: ”At one point, conventions were really about rallying grassroots and energizing volunteers. It was traditionally driven by getting positive media and getting your message out. It gave you a springboard for the general election. I think today they’ve become perhaps less important. The nominees are decided beforehand, where at one time at conventions you were kingmakers. It has become…a necessary formality.” 


Marchick asked whether conventions give a lasting boost to the presidential nominees. 

Daughtry: “In 2008, we thought we had a good bounce (for Barack Obama). We had a great night at Invesco field, but then Senator (John) McCain announced Sarah Palin (as his running mate). The next morning it completely killed the bounce. The nation’s attention turned to the Republicans and the historic moment of having a woman on the Republican ticket.” 

Cino: “In theory it was a great call. Unfortunately, that balanced out in about two weeks and it (the rise in the polls and positive public attention) went away very quickly…It was great to have the first woman on the Republican ticket. There was a tremendous amount of press, but it did not last very long given the fact that perhaps (Alaska) Governor Palin wasn’t as prepared for that particular role as we would have needed.” 


Marchick asked whether the political party platforms are important. 

Cino: “You go through a lot of pains because you’re trying to keep everybody happy, but in the end nobody’s happy and you have to produce a document…I’d honestly say that after that document is printed and handed out, if you ever look at it again, I would be surprised until the next platform is written. In my mind, the theory is great, but I’m not sure in practice that it makes a whole lot of sense.” 

Daughtry: “It’s a great exercise in trying to create unity and a statement of values and principles, but in the end, nobody takes the platform to the halls of Congress and says, `Here’s your legislation.’” 


Marchick asked Cino what she liked and did not like about planning a convention. 

Cino: “The best part of the convention is probably more personal. I love working with young people. It’s a great opportunity to actually find a lot of very, very talented young folks…I also think it’s really great to get to know local officials in a city and get to know about the city. I think the least fun part is probably raising money and trying to make sure that you had the money to do what needed to be done, to get the arena in shape and put the program on that the candidate.”  


Marchick asked how the pandemic will impact this year’s conventions and how this might set a precedent for the future. 

Cino: “I think now out of necessity, this is an opportunity to look to the future. Do conventions have to be four to five days? Do they have to be in the same city, and do you have to bring all delegates and alternates to one location? I think that’s a positive…The media is not interested in covering more than maybe two hours an evening…Maybe we’ll have more impactful speeches, we’ll have better messaging and we’ll have the ability to maybe hear what’s most important.” 


Marchick asked how the convention planners can create excitement and energy this year with virtual convention? 

Daughtry: “In any convention, no matter how many people are there, you’ve got the audience that’s in the arena and in the hall. Of course, there’s tremendous energy for the speakers who are there…But really in any convention cycle, the bulk of the people who are watching are in their homes, in their churches and their union halls…To that point, not much is changing in terms of the need to provide some exciting programming that will keep people glued to their devices. I think both sides have an opportunity to do something really exciting that will hold the viewer’s attention. It’s going to be all their own production and all on their messaging…Both sides have to put their best foot forward to give something to the American people that tells them how they’re going to lead in the next four years. I think people will watch and if the programming excites people, they will stay the two whole hours.”  


Marchick asked Daughtry about her biggest convention nightmare. 

Daughtry: “The biggest nightmare I had was the year that someone who thought they should have more (speaking) time and actually took more time. I was sitting in my seat on the podium watching this individual go off script. This particular person went over about 10 minutes, which meant we had to bump somebody and the person we had to bump was another elected official. And that person was really, really unhappy.” 


Marchick asked Daughtry whether she had any pre-convention rituals. 

“I like to go to the venue on Sunday night around midnight when it’s empty. No one is there except  a couple of cleaning people and I just like to walk around. I walked through… all of the delegation sections and just try to get ready for the next day, but also remember the ancestors and in particular, Fannie Lou Hamer, who was not allowed to be seated as a delegate at our 1968 convention. I am grateful to the work that she did that made it possible for me so many years later, an African American woman, to serve as CEO of the same party that kept her out. It’s a testimony  about how far a party has come and how the power of the people really can make change, including inside the political structure.” 


Marchick asked about any memorable convention delegates. 

Cino: At one point I remember seeing two particular delegates on floor trotting around in  elephant costumes.” 

Daughtry: I remember the man who was covered head to toe in buttons, and I just thought to myself, how long did it take you to do that? I mean, his entire outfit was buttons.”