Political junkies get excited about the Republican and Democratic national conventions, but for many Americans they provide a stark reminder of how out of touch our political system has become. The strange rituals and bad jokes seem oddly out of place in the 21st century, almost as strange as seeing an engineer use a slide rule rather than an iPad to perform some complex calculation.
While partisan activists tune in when their team's big show is on the air, most unaffiliated voters view the conventions as a waste of time and money. For the past week or so, everyone I know in the political world has been talking about the latest convention buzz. But I live far from Washington, and most people I talk to aren't wrapped up in politics. Among that group, the most common response to mentioning the convention was something along the lines of, "Oh, yeah, I forgot that was going on now."
The reason for the declining interest is simple. Conventions used to matter. They actually decided something. In 1960, when John Kennedy was nominated for president with Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, nobody could be sure of the outcome until the roll call of states was completed. There were only five primaries in that year. But by the 1970s, the rules had changed, and now primaries select the major party nominees. The conventions are just a relic to confirm what has already been decided.
Since they decide nothing, only about one in five unaffiliated voters tunes in for most of the convention coverage. Even the major networks, themselves products of a bygone era, have figured this out and have limited coverage to an hour a night. Only 14 percent of all voters wish there were more.
This creates an odd dynamic where political reporters and pundits watch the festivities as if they matter. They then analyze each speech and comment as if persuadable voters are paying attention. Their impressions of the convention then influence future coverage of the campaign.
That would make sense if voters trusted reporters, but they don't. Only 22 percent believe reporters even try to offer unbiased coverage of political news. Instead, the general public sees most reporters as activists trying to help their favored candidate. Most believe reporters are so in the tank for their team that they would bury a scoop rather than release information that might hurt the cause.