In the moments before battle, the air crackles with excitement. Both sides of the war have assembled their forces, which are about to be subsumed by the big picture of the fight. Before that happens, however, each soldier is allowed a brief moment to conjure the world that they're fighting for, to raise morale and perhaps win over a few more volunteers to the cause.
Of course, this isn't a real battle, only one performed for the camera, which passes over each battalion with the C-SPAN equivalent of the tracking shot during the climactic fight in a war movie. No bayonets or tennis balls or umbrellas are allowed on the battlefield. The only weapons afforded to each soldier are excessively rehearsed state facts.
It's the roll call of the states, and it is the most earnestly wonderful moment of modern presidential conventions.
The official purpose of the roll call is to tally up the delegates awarded over the primary and perform the ceremonial removal of “presumptive” from the presidential nominee's job title. It is also one of the few moments of the convention when the camera turns away from the stage for a reason other than to chronicle that year's bad moves for future dance historians. The convention is designed to highlight the party's top priorities for that election cycle, as well as provide a teaser for future elections by giving top prospects time to be scouted by voters. However, the party is not a monolith, as each of this year's conventions made clear. The roll call of the states functions as a live reading of letters-to-the-editor from opinionated party folk. Each state is given a chance to concur with the argument laid out onstage and provide a concurring opinion or offer a different idea of what would make America great.
But, as we mentioned, there is a twist. Each delegate afforded a chance to speak must condense their argument into a short recitation of facts about their state. If that weren't hard enough, the brief moments before you have to announce how your delegates are voting must also function as an abbreviated argument for why your state is the greatest on earth. Again, this must be accomplished with state facts — plus an assist from carefully chosen hats. Since the modern convention features little mystery when it comes to who will win the nomination, wondering what each state will brag about is the only suspense left.
There were plenty of political ideas hiding behind the facts proudly reeled out at last week's Republican convention. Alabama bragged that it was home to the largest Trump rallies. Other states might have misgivings about Trump, but not them; Jeff Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump, and the state was one of Trump's early victories. Tales of stupendous job growth became repetitive and provided an alternate reality to the Dickensian economic tales being spun onstage. Interspersed with the signposting about state priorities was a delightful string of Trivial Pursuit flotsam featuring potatoes, Pez, and Prince. Some of the facts are adorably bland, but who has the heart to tell Democrats Abroad that the fact that it registers voters on its website isn't the most interesting thing you've ever heard? If Connecticut tells you, “if ya wanna buy a submarine,” they know a guy, how dare you not be impressed?
The roll call can also function as a reminder that although the country's priorities seem to suffer whiplash as the White House ricochets from president to president, each state's priorities — and the things that make them proud — often remain static. Rewind history back to the 1988 Republican convention: Jeb Bush proudly attended to give Florida's delegates to his dad. Conservative Alaskans are still talking about their incomparable stores of energy and natural resources. The only thing that Vermont can find to talk about is Calvin Coolidge and snow, and Arkansas still considers its status as top rice producer one of its most flattering qualities. In 1992, D.C. was convinced it was about to be the 51st state.
In the midst of all the partisan sniping, the roll call points out that politically minded folks can agree on a few things. If a state has a mountain of note, it is likely that delegates representing it at both conventions will mention it, although with different frames. Republicans will say that it is a symbol of the state’s “rugged individualism," while Democrats will discuss the sanctity of the environment. Democratic delegates will emphasize their state's diversity and voting rights efforts, while Republicans will bring up the economy and national security. Back in 1992, the last time a Clinton was being nominated at a Democratic convention, Idaho's joke that “We know how to spell potato” was probably already groan-inducingly stale: It's still being told, in various incarnations, at red and blue conventions today.
Shockingly, most Americans do not find Trivia Night at the convention to be thrilling entertainment, and the parties have experimented with ways to take the focus off federalism. In 2000, the Republican Party spread out the roll call over three nights. “One giant chunk of time devoted to counting votes may be gripping if you are a floor clerk in the House or Senate,” George Bush's spokesperson told the New York Times. “But for 249 million other Americans, it's not as captivating.”
It's not clear how Tuesday's roll call will unfold — and how messy it could get. Bernie Sanders said during his speech, “I look forward to your vote during the roll call tomorrow night,” which makes it seem unlikely that we will be deprived of the list of state nicknames, landmarks, presidential birthplaces, and exports promised. Clinton's spokesperson told CBS News, “It is exactly in keeping with our philosophy that every vote should count and that means every delegate being counted on the floor of the convention.” And before the ugly general election battle starts this fall, where it's hard to remember why anyone would like politics or how you could ever agree with someone who disagrees with you about the presidential race, we at least get a reminder that sometimes, politics is just a girl, standing in front of a voter, asking it to love its award-winning cheese and note that the Green Bay Packers have never won the Super Bowl without a Democrat in the White House.