Teaching the 2016 Election: National Party Conventions

by Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison, and Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar


Balloons, confetti, speeches, and funny hats combined with delegates, candidates, protestors, and journalists have descended upon Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. Soon Democrats will arrive in Philadelphia for their own weeklong confab.

The road to the conventions has been long and arduous for the candidates as they navigated state primaries and caucuses to win the support of delegates. Candidates did not always have to campaign to obtain the necessary number of delegates to win the party nomination. Political party conventions and their role in nominating candidates has evolved over time. Some say the current primary process makes the conventions merely a ceremonial recognition of the party nominee.

The conventions do provide an opportunity for the party members to vote on their platforms which are a formal set of party goals and beliefs. The planks of the platform are the specific components of the platform which are presented to the national stage. The platforms and nominating conventions are a perfect starting point for students to understand candidate positions and the basic tenets of the political parties.

A comparison of the Republican and Democratic platform helps students determine where they fall on the political spectrum and the agendas the candidates would pursue if elected.

The candidacy of Republican presidential nominee presents a challenge to traditional Republican orthodoxy and is in many ways at odds with the party platform and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence. To what extent does the nominee define his or her party, and how does the issue positions he or she takes shape its eventual policy agenda?

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign drove presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton decisively to the left. He withheld his endorsement for 36 days after Clinton clinched the requisite number of delegates, presumably to use his leverage to shape the party platform. Not only were his supporters well represented on the platform committee, but Clinton’s endorsement of free tuition at public universities is an early indication of Sanders’ success.

Long after the confetti is swept from the convention floors, the party platforms, and the policy agendas they establish, influence voters’ decisions. Elections have consequences, first and foremost providing a blueprint for governance.

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