The Republican and Democratic parties hold national conventions where party delegates officially select the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, as well as adopt the party's election platform. Conventions play an important role in the American system and can even make or break a politician.

Conventions Fast Facts

  • The party which is not in the White House chooses their convention dates first.
  • The incumbent President's party then has the choice to hold its national convention before or after the other party's convention.
  • In 2008 Barack Obama received 2,201 delegates and Hillary Clinton received 1,896 delegates.
  • In 2008 John McCain received 1,575 delegates nearly six times as many as his nearest competitor.

Obama and Biden

Joe Biden and Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic Party Convention

Role of Conventions

Historically, the presidential and vice presidential nominees were decided at the convention. Nowadays the presumptive presidential nominee is typically known months before formal nomination at the convention. Today's conventions are an opportunity to energise party members, network, coordinate strategies and frame the party and nominee's message. Conventions also provide nominees with a national spotlight and media coverage, with most attention paid to the nominee's acceptance speech. Like any large conference, the Republican and Democratic conventions host a series of speakers, meetings and social events. The official party platform is adopted, which has been decided in advance by party committees. The conventions feature speeches from the president and vice-president nominees, as well as prominent people within the party. The spouse of the presidential nominee also addresses the convention to give the televised audience a feel for the personal life of the nominee, not just the issues in the campaign.

Convention Speeches: Make or Break

Conventions can vault speakers to national prominence. Barack Obama's address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention put him on the national political map. Similarly, Sarah Palin's 2008 acceptance speech as the Republican's vice-presidential nominee revitalised the McCain campaign.

God Bless America

Have you noticed that almost all speakers at the conventions finish their speeches with "God bless America" or "God bless the USA"? This is also true of most major addresses by American political leaders to their fellow citizens. Australians would find it strange for their politician to end speeches with "God bless Australia", illustrating the important role religion plays in American society.

John McCain and Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin and John McCain at the 2008 Republican Party Convention

The ‘Smoke-filled Room'

After it became clear that there was no clear front-runner among the eleven candidates in the 1920 Republican convention, party leaders worked all night in the ‘smoke filled rooms' of Chicago's Blackstone Hotel, eventually selecting Warren G. Harding as their nominee. This is where the phrase ‘smoke-filled rooms' originated.

2008 Convention Speeches

Listen to the 2008 Democratic Convention speeches:

Listen to the 2008 Republican Convention speeches:

Back to top