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For Political Conventions, Another Balloon Bursts

President Obama stands on stage with Vice President Biden and their families after accepting the party nomination during the final day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Obama stands on stage with Vice President Biden and their families after accepting the party nomination during the final day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

There's news today about the 2016 presidential campaign that has nothing to do with the growing list of would-be candidates with White House aspirations.

It's about the big nominating conventions the Democrats and Republicans hold every four years. Legislation the president signed Thursday afternoon means those huge political extravaganzas will no longer receive millions of dollars in taxpayer support. It's not the only change that's likely for conventions.

Let's start with a little time travel:

"I'm Walter Cronkite, and this is our anchor desk for our CBS News Westinghouse coverage of this 1956 Democratic Convention. This is the dramatic high point of the convention ..."

Back then and for years afterward, there was around-the-clock coverage of conventions by television networks. Big news could hit at any time, and did.

At the 1964 GOP convention, bitter party divisions were front and center. Then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the man beaten by nominee Barry Goldwater, issued a stern warning: "I warn that the Republican Party should reject extremism from either the left or the right."

At the 1980 convention, former President Gerald Ford shocked everyone when he revealed a possible co-presidency if he joined the ticket with nominee Ronald Reagan.

It was a bombshell story until CBS went to Lesley Stahl on the convention floor.

"Walter, a top lieutenant just came and said it's not Ford ... they're coming all around me to tell me it's not Ford ... they're all yelling 'Bush' all around me. Someone told me it's Bush. They're all yelling "Bush" all around me ... everyone is yelling 'Bush,' " Stahl reported to CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite.

Cronkite was surprised and amused: "Who's writing the script for this one? That's what I want to know," he said.

That moment may have been the last instance of truly unexpected and substantive drama at a nominating convention. And that's exactly the problem.

"Conventions became theatrical productions," says Don Fowler, a member of the Democratic National Committee for four decades and the man who managed the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

These days, news organizations — especially the big commercial broadcast networks — continue to question the worth of devoting prime time space to events with no suspense. Live daytime coverage is long gone except on cable.

Fowler says he got complaints from the networks in 1988.

"We fussed with them for weeks about how much of the convention they were going to cover. They reduced substantially in '88, and they've been trying to do that since then. I think in 2012 both conventions received as little coverage as any conventions previous," he says.

Meanwhile, Republicans are planning another big change in 2016. They will hold their gathering months earlier than usual — perhaps in June, in hopes of quickly wrapping up what could be a no-holds-barred fight for the nomination, and to give the GOP nominee a head start on the general election.

There's even talk about scaling back events to as few as two days.

But Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina, says these changes in scheduling and coverage don't mean conventions are unimportant.

"I still think conventions become a very significant way that voters can tune in to and see sort of the best arguments from each party for why they should elect a particular candidate," he says.

Still, it's no wonder — in a time of budget battles and questions about the relevance of big party nominating conventions — that spending some $18 million in federal money per convention has now come to an end with the president's signature. The money will instead be used to finance research on childhood diseases.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.