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Unity through Rhetoric? Party Conventions and Primary Contestants

Teddy Roosevelt Addressing the Republican Convention

The Republican National Convention is now only a few days away.  For the first time since 1976, there are rumblings of a potential rebellion among the delegates and signs that the Republican Party is as fractured as it has ever been since the Reagan Revolution. One of the surest of these signs is Trump’s inability to attract top-tier speakers, especially among his former competitors.

Since the McGovern-Fraser Reforms of the early 1970s, primaries have been the default method of nominating presidential candidates.  Although some degree of primary campaigning took place in the decades following the Progressive Era (when the direct primary was introduced), the modern primary season began with these reforms. Since then, the primary season has evolved into a year-long war of attrition among the candidates that usually ends months before the party’s official convention. The conventions since 1976 has thus served as little more than coronation festivals for the winner of the primary campaign.

At these conventions, tradition has held that many of the primary contestants get a chance to speak in primetime on behalf of the nominee and party, usually as a sign of party unity and strength.  Trump, however, has been rather unsuccessful in getting his old rivals to speak on his behalf. Of the 2nd-4th place finishers in terms of delegates and when they suspended their campaigns, only Texas Senator Ted Cruz has agreed to address the convention.  According to reports, however, Cruz will be speaking without actually endorsing the nominee.  This is unprecedented in the contemporary history of the Republican Party.  Since 1980, every nominee has been able to woo at least one of his top rivals into both speaking and endorsing him at the national convention, with the exception of 1996.  In 1996, paleoconservative firebrand Pat Buchanan refused to endorse Bob Dole, held a separate rally for his supporters outside of the convention, and even threatened a 3rd party campaign if Dole did not pick a pro-life running mate. Aside from that extreme case, however, each Republican nominee has managed to persuade at least one final rival to publicly support him at the convention. Although Trump has the support of figures like Ben Carson, Chris Christie, and Mike Huckabee, it should concern Trump and his staff that they have only managed to secure a non-nomination speech from any of Trump's last three opponents, given this history at the RNC. 

On the Democratic side, we see much of the same.  In general, the nominees successfully woo their rivals to speak on their behalf at the convention.  The lone exception in recent cycles for the Democrats was in 1992, when California Governor Jerry Brown only spoke at the convention to second his own nomination.  Another of his rivals, former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, however, still spoke on Clinton’s behalf. Even in 1980, the last contested Democratic National Convention, Senator Edward Kennedy conceded and publicly endorsed his bitter rival, President Jimmy Carter, after the outcome was no longer in doubt.  Generally, the Democrats have done a good job of patching up campaign wounds and unifying the party at the conventions, as their ability to placate Rev. Jesse Jackson on multiple occasions show.

Trump’s inability to secure the support of Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich should be a troubling omen for the presumptive nominee, especially since Kasich is the governor of the host state. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that many prominent Republican politicians, the kind who would normally fill up other speaker slots, are skipping the convention (including both Rubio and Kasich).  Although the supporters of the occasional quixotic candidate (such as Ron Paul or perhaps Bernie Sanders, this year) will boycott a convention out of spite, there is no precedent for so many high ranking party officials to miss a national convention.  The modern convention is designed to celebrate the party’s nominee and convey a message of unity and strength to the rest of the country.  Unfortunately for Trump and is supporters, the daunting omens are beginning to pile up and suggest that next week’s convention will be the rockiest party convention since the start of the contemporary primary era.

Table 1- Prominent Primary Contestants Speaking at the Convention


Republican Speakers

Democrat Speakers


Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum



Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback

Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden*, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich




John Edwards**, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark


John McCain

Bill Bradley






Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown****


Bob Dole, Pat Robertson

Jesse Jackson



Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart


George H.W. Bush

Ted Kennedy

*- Biden was chosen as Barack Obama’s running mate.

**- Edwards was chosen as John Kerry's running mate.

***- Dole’s strongest opponent, Pat Buchanan, held a separate rally outside the convention and did not speak at the RNC

****- Brown only spoke to second his own nomination.

Alex Welch is a Ph.D. student with the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a research assistant at the Miller Center.

Date edited: 07/15/2016 (10:41AM)


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