Conventional Wisdom: Everything You Need To Know About The Major-Party Powwows

Democrats, Republicans gather to support their parties — and to party.

Look out, here they come: The quadrennial spectacles known as the major political-party conventions are upon us.

Last month, it was thousands of Democratic Party activists invading Boston from all corners of the country for four days of speeches, parties, meetings, votes and more parties. This week the Republicans will do much the same during their get-together in New York.

Once upon a time, the conventions actually determined which two men would square off for the presidency in the general election. Party faithful known as delegates traveled from every state to gather in cavernous halls for the equivalent of a political rumble.

After much debating, arm-twisting and back-room deal-cutting among various power brokers, delegates would cast votes to determine who the party's nominee would be. To win, a candidate needed to garner the support of a majority of the delegate ballots cast. Some years, it took multiple votes for one candidate to clear the 50 percent threshold, and the action could go on late into the night.

To the great sadness of those who enjoy politics as sport, those days of high drama are long gone. It's been decades since a convention played a critical role in determining the party's nominee. Thanks to changes in party rules, the vast majority of delegates now arrive at the convention already committed to one candidate or another.

The system is also stacked to ensure that if one candidate generates enough momentum early in the primary season, he or she is almost assured the nomination. This year, for example, John Kerry was well on his way to being Mr. Democrat by April. For his part, President Bush faced no significant challenge whatsoever for the Republican nomination.

Today, the delegates themselves are party activists of all stripes, ranging from U.S. senators and representatives down to local county officials and campaign volunteers. Major financial contributors are also very well represented, of course.

During the convention, the delegates must also ratify a party platform, a policy statement representing the party's official positions on any number of issues. In the old days, the platform really meant something because presidential candidates were expected to implement the policies outlined within it. Candidates for lower offices were counted on to do the same.

No longer. Candidates in both parties have been known to run with or away from their party's platform, depending on which way the political winds were blowing in their backyards. Today, the document is barely worth the paper it's printed on.

Typically, it's on the third night of the event that delegates get around to officially crowning their nominee through an extended roll-call vote. Though there's absolutely no doubt that John Kerry and George W. Bush will score wins, the moment at which their totals cross the 50 percent threshold will be choreographed to make for exquisite television pageantry.

Because these days, that's what conventions are really about: building the image of the party's presidential nominee. Though they no longer provide wall-to-wall coverage as they did in previous years, ABC, NBC and CBS will still devote six hours of prime time to broadcasting the two conventions.

That's three hours apiece for the Democrats and the Republicans to deliver virtually unfiltered messages about who their candidates are and what they intend to do if they win. Not to mention the many more hours of coverage on cable news channels like CNN and FOX News, plus stories on so-called "untraditional news outlets" like Comedy Central and MTV.

So, not surprisingly, the campaigns go to extraordinary lengths to plan every single moment of these events for maximum impact. Each speaker is meticulously selected. Often, drafts of speeches to be delivered in prime time are vetted by the presidential candidate's staff. Short films, the equivalent of extended commercials, are produced to play up a candidate's personal appeal.

It all culminates the final night, when the party's presidential nominee delivers his acceptance speech, so called because he literally accepts the outcome of the delegate vote and agrees to be the party's guy in the fall. This is considered to be the single most important speech the candidate will give during the course of the campaign, largely because it is the only time the networks will allow him to talk at length to the American people uninterrupted over their airwaves.

The speech runs anywhere from 30 to 75 minutes and is the only true must-see part of the convention. It gives voters an extended-play chance to listen to the men who would be president articulate who they are and where they hope to lead the nation.

After the speech, things wrap up pretty quickly. The balloons drop, the music plays and the networks return to regularly scheduled programming. And the delegates head off to the bars one last time before returning home the next day.