Foreign Policy and Political Nominating Conventions

Foreign Policy and Political Nominating Conventions

President George W. Bush addresses delegates at the Republican National Convention in New York City, September 2004.
President George W. Bush addresses delegates at the Republican National Convention in New York City, September 2004. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ-Roll Call Group)

U.S. political conventions offer the parties a place to unite around presidential candidates and a vision for foreign and domestic policy.

Last updated September 16, 2008 8:00 am (EST)

President George W. Bush addresses delegates at the Republican National Convention in New York City, September 2004.
President George W. Bush addresses delegates at the Republican National Convention in New York City, September 2004. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ-Roll Call Group)
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Every four years, Republican and Democratic delegates gather to appoint presidential nominees and formulate their party’s platform for the general election. Until the middle of the twentieth century, conventions offered great drama in the choosing of presidential candidates and in some cases, they exposed intraparty differences over foreign policy and other issues. For the past couple of decades, though, there has been little suspense over the choice of candidates. The results of the presidential primary contests earlier this year were confirmed in late August 2008 when the Democratic gathering in Denver nominated Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), and the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to be the GOP’s presidential standard-bearer. Some experts say the significance of conventions has decreased in recent years as platforms are increasingly dictated by the campaigns of the presumptive nominees. Still, conventions have served to draw national attention to candidates and this year could showcase sharp differences over issues such as the Iraq war, energy expansion, and free trade.

Why do political parties hold conventions?

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Through much of the twentieth century, convention delegates would "actually do a fair amount of decision making, meaning that the nomination would often not really be decided, until the convention," says Northeastern University political science professor William G. Mayer. In 1952, it took Democratic delegates three rounds of voting at their convention to agree on Adlai Stevenson as their presidential nominee (NYT).

In 1972, six Democratic candidates remained in the nomination race by the time of the convention, though delegates chose Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) on the first ballot. Now, most of the major decisions involving candidates and party positions are made ahead of the conventions, experts say, but the formal nomination process is still required. "Even though we all know who are going to be the nominees, you still at some level need a formal counting mechanism, somebody that will actually add up the delegates and certify who is allowed to cast votes," says Mayer.

Parties also hold the conventions in hope of drawing new public attention to their candidate, allowing them to "project themselves as never before to a national audience," says James A. McCann, a Purdue University political science professor. The conventions, which last for four days, usually do not receive much prime-time television coverage until the last night, when the nominated candidate speaks. Still, the conventions are sure to receive considerable coverage from bloggers and other online media outlets in addition to limited attention on television and in other traditional media sources.

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Candidates often enjoy a boost in public opinion polls-- or a "convention bounce" (WashPost)-- immediately following the event. But that bounce does not necessarily translate to a victory in the November election. In 1984, Democratic candidate Walter Mondale received a thirteen-point bump in polls after his appearance at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in San Francisco, bringing him within two points of Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Mondale lost in a landslide in the general election. But another Democrat, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, received the largest convention bounce in polling history in 1992 and went on to be elected to two straight terms as president. Gallup polls showed a four-point boost for Obama immediately following the Democratic National Convention in Denver.  Soon after, McCain gained his own convention bounce (Gallup) of about five points following the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.


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What is the significance of party platforms?

Unlike many parliamentary democracies, whose electoral platforms reflect hard-fought debates within a party that various factions then seek to enforce during the party’s time in power, American electoral platforms have evolved into more political documents. There was a time, says University of California at Berkeley political science professor Henry Brady, when platforms were once "really vivid constructions of the party." Now, experts disagree on the extent to which platforms reflect the party and its nominee. Brady says platforms have increasingly become "creatures of the candidates and not a creature of the party." As a result, says Brady, a candidate’s campaign often creates a platform out of "pre-hatched documents" designed to serve the nominated presidential candidate’s political interests. A candidate will want the positions they have taken throughout the campaign to be "reflected to a large extent in the wording of the platform," he says.

The 2008 Democratic platform largely matches up with Obama’s policy plans. For example, both Obama’s "New Energy for America" plan and the Democratic platform say the United States should get at least 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Likewise, the platform’s section on Afghanistan mirrors Obama’s call to send additional combat brigades to the region. The platform draft also includes Obama’s proposed sixteen-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, but allows for some flexibility, saying the Democrats "expect to complete redeployment within sixteen months." The Republican Party platform mostly corresponds with plans McCain promotes as part of his campaign. The platform also differs from McCain’s agenda in some areas. For example, the platform does not include mention of a policy to cap carbon emissions, like the one McCain has called for.

But Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says he does not believe party platforms are only representative of the candidate. Party platforms "tend to reflect the most traditional elements of the party, no matter what they are left or right," because the platform committee is usually made up of members of the party’s national committee, says Hess. Platforms often reflect both "the party and the candidate who is elected," says Hess, who was editor in chief of the Republican platform in 1976. Although platforms tend to generate some cynicism, says Northeastern University’s Mayer, "there is actually some pretty good evidence to show that in the end they are meaningful, in the sense that by and large most of the promises are fulfilled in one form or another."

What role has foreign policy played in crafting platforms?

There have been some major battles over the foreign policy sections of party platforms. One of the most famous happened at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the party split over the war in Vietnam, then being waged by a Democrat, President Lyndon B. Johnson. As protests raged outside the convention center, an antiwar sector of the Democratic Party led by Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) and Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) proposed a platform plank calling for an end to bombing and negotiations aimed at a withdrawal. The Vietnam War "has been an enormous cost in human life and in material resources. It has diverted our energies from pressing domestic problems and impaired our prestige in the world," McCarthy and McGovern’s plank declared. The plank was defeated in a vote after extensive and tense debate. The Democratic platform ended up including a series of steps for ending the war in Vietnam, including an immediate halt to bombing in North Vietnam "when this action would not endanger the lives of our troops in the field" and a negotiated withdrawal of all foreign forces from South Vietnam. Republican Richard Nixon, who defeated Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, promised to end the war through his "Vietnamization" plan of cooperation between the South Vietnamese government and the United States.

During the 1980s, foreign policy platforms that reflected broad orthodoxy in both parties took hold. Republican platforms regularly included pledges to increase defense spending and efforts aimed at curbing global communism. Democratic platforms, with slightly more internal debate, featured vows to freeze nuclear arsenals and end covert actions in Central America. And in virtually every cycle, both parties took pains to put on paper their commitment to Israel. Unlike the 1968 Democratic National Convention, disagreements today "tend to get resolved in private well before the convention opens," says Mayer. "The general thought is you don’t want to air your dirty laundry in public" by having an "extended floor fight on national TV."

Because the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), and many other prominent Democrats had voted in favor of the war in Iraq in 2002, the 2004 Democratic platform treaded carefully around the issue of Iraq. The platform’s Iraq section read, "People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq, but this much is clear: this Administration badly exaggerated its case, particularly with respect to weapons of mass destruction and the connection between Saddam’s government and al-Qaeda" (PDF).

The GOP convention in 2004 emphasized national security issues, repeatedly invoking the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (PDF). "As Republicans, we do not equivocate, as others have done, about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq," the party’s platform read. "President Bush had a choice to make: Trust a madman [Saddam Hussein] or defend America. He chose defending America."

Were foreign policy issues contentious at conventions this year?

In the run-up to the conventions, there remained some disagreement within both parties as to how to proceed in Iraq. Still, analysts say a floor fight at either convention on that issue seems unlikely. The Democratic Party leadership, including Obama, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), as well as former Democratic presidential frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) all oppose the war and say the United States should begin to withdraw troops. While writing their platform, Mayer says, the Democrats will probably spent "a lot of time saying, ‘Okay, exactly how do we want to word this so that we don’t look like we’re cutting and running? We still don’t believe the surge is working, but on the other hand, we don’t concede anything that would be particularly helpful to John McCain’s campaign.’"

While some in the Republican Party have spoken out against the war in Iraq, the majority support McCain’s stance on the troop surge and his emphasis on national security issues. McCain has in the past shown willingness to buck his party on contentious issues like climate change, the use of torture, or immigration policy. A May 2008 Pew poll, for example, shows Republicans are becoming increasingly skeptical that climate change exists. McCain, meanwhile, was among the first Republicans to acknowledge the existence of climate change and to propose a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Still, these disparities between the party and its candidate did not lead to any major disputes at the convention this year.

Meanwhile, strong sentiment among the rank and file of both parties has emerged to challenge the longtime consensus over free trade. Particularly on the Democratic side, the candidate faced pressure to include language about the need to revisit the NAFTA accord with Canada and Mexico, or to enforce labor and environmental standards in bilateral trade agreements.

How important are the convention speeches?

Convention speeches provide a special opportunity for candidates to express their vision on foreign and domestic matters and project themselves to a national audience.

For instance, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, in his widely cited 1980 convention speech, called for renewing the country’s spirit through, among other things, strengthening its defense and global leadership. Reagan listed the establishment of lasting world peace as his foremost foreign policy goal. Still, he said, "the United States has an obligation to its citizens and to the people of the world never to let those who would destroy freedom dictate the future course of human life on this planet."

Memorable convention speeches are not limited to the presidential candidates. An up-and-coming leader might also speak in an attempt to promote a fresh image. Before Obama, then a candidate for the Senate, spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he was a relative unknown around the country. In the speech that served as his entry point into the national political scene, Obama introduced what has become a key message of his presidential campaign—"the audacity of hope."

Obama’s speech at the 2008 convention garnered strong media attention. He broke with tradition by giving his speech outside the convention center. The speech, which took place on the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, was located this year in INVESCO stadium, before a crowd of 84,000 people (LAT). McCain’s convention speech on September 4 in the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, stressed the need for government reform.


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