What Is a Political Convention?

By definition, a convention is "a formal meeting of members, representatives or delegates, as of a political party, fraternal society, profession or industry," and that's what kicked off in Tampa, Fla., Monday and kicked into high gear Tuesday.

Republican delegates and representatives from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas and Puerto Rico have descended upon the Sunshine state for this meeting, the central purpose of which is to officially nominate the Republican Party's presidential and vice presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

  • A look at convention rules and roles

Conventions are a time-honored tradition that date to the 19th century, but they're not legally required by federal or state law, and there's nothing in the Constitution that says they're required to nominate a presidential candidate.

It turns out there are few official, overarching rules for conventions. Each party establishes its own rules for nominating its candidate. Every presidential election cycle, both parties put out an official call announcing the date and site. There's no specific, set date for this call. The Republican National Committee's bylaws for this cycle dictate only that "the Republican National Committee shall issue the call for the next national convention to nominate candidates for the president of the United States and vice president of the United States prior to Jan. 1 of the year in which the convention is to be held."

The convention serves three official purposes: First and foremost, to nominate a party's candidates for president and vice president. That nomination happens with a floor vote, wherein Romney and Ryan need to receive votes from 1,144 (one half plus one) of the 2,286 delegates attending the Tampa event. The number of delegates needed to win the nomination is based off of a formula- one half, plus one of the total delegates available need to be won by a single candidate during their primary season. The number of total delegates needed however, is not constant- that can change every cycle.

This election cycle, the primary season brought a little suspense when for a brief time it looked as if no single candidate would reach this mark. That would have meant a brokered convention, with multiple rounds of floor voting and potentially a lot of chaos. But Mitt Romney reached the 1,144 mark in May when he won the Texas primary. This years floor vote, which took place on Tuesday evening, was relatively straightforward. It lasted around 30 minutes, and New Jersey, coincidentally the home state of that night's keynote speaker Chris Christie, was the state that put Romney over the top.

Those watching the floor vote might have noticed that the states were called out in alphabetical order, but that states were not seated that way. Alabama was in a totally separate spot on the floor from American Samoa and Arizona, for example. That's because seating order was determined separately from voting order. The delegations with the best seats include a lot of swing states- Virginia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania all have prime seating assignments very close to the podium. Romney's home state of Michigan is seated front and center- a clear indicator of the campaign's desires to make Michigan a swing state. Massachusetts, the state that launched Romney's political career, also has a front row seat. These seating arrangements change with every cycle as well- but frequently states of particular political or personal importance to the candidate generally receive good placement.

The other two purposes of the convention are to adopt the party's platform and principles, and rules for the next election cycle, including the procedure for selecting the presidential candidate for years later.

Conventions serve a very important cultural function too. They're the springboard, so to speak, for the final months of the electoral push. The party comes together to rally behind its chosen candidates, and voters who may not have been paying attention to the election suddenly take notice of the candidates. The convention provides a symbolic moment of pride and enthusiasm, and an opportunity to show party strength.