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The Iowa Straw Poll and the National Political Conventions

Did last week’s Republican Convention spell the beginning of the end for national political conventions, at least in their current form? I’m not certain, but it should.

Like the GOP’s Ames straw poll, which gets a huge build-up in the media but tells us almost nothing about who will be the party’s eventual nominee, conventions deliver little bang for the buck.

Only a few speeches during the Republicans’ shortened three-day event mattered, and nothing that happened in Tampa, Fla., – or will happen in Charlotte, N.C., – is likely to have much of an effect on the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.

The speeches by Ann Romney, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney were noteworthy, just as the speeches by Michelle Obama and the president will be this week. But noteworthy isn’t the same thing impacting the election.

So, while observers picked apart each speech, chewing over the content of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s introduction of Romney and director Clint Eastwood’s performance, and opining about the contrast between Ann Romney’s speech and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s, most persuadable voters were unlikely to be swayed by the Republican convention or, for that matter, this week’s Democratic Party gathering.

The time and effort selecting convention sites, developing and implementing security plans, and schlepping thousands of people, along with mountains of equipment, for events with microscopic political impact makes little sense.

Conventions largely are choreographed programs (except for Eastwood, apparently) filled with politicians repeating the same slogans and talking points that they have been uttering for months. And in this day and age, with presidential campaigns and advertising starting earlier and earlier, August conventions bring little new to the table.

Can I imagine a convention that is important? Sure. If delegates convene and no candidate has enough delegates to assure his or her nomination, then the convention would be very important. Or if a dramatic fight at a convention showed a party to be deeply divided or extreme, that too could be significant.

But in most cases, conventions are vestiges of an era long gone, when delegates made important decisions and most voters weren’t already familiar with at least one of the presidential nominees.

Of course, there are still those who have strong incentives to keep the status quo.

The political parties want every opportunity to attract eyeballs, generate television shots of wildly enthusiastic supporters and parade politicians and supporters before viewers. Politics is about both breadth of appeal and intensity, and a good convention can still add a dose of excitement that delegates can bring back to their home states.

And though journalists complain about the logistical nightmares of conventions, most reporters love them. They like the excitement, the easy access to interviews and the opportunity to bump into an officeholder or insider who may give them a tip or point them to a story. And face it, some journalists are celebrities who love being the center of attention at conventions.

Weather shortened this year’s Republican event from three days to four, just as the Labor Day holiday has shortened the Democratic gathering, and it’s clear that nothing has been lost. It’s not as if a fourth night or a fifth or a sixth would make any of the speeches more effective or make it more likely that the party’s message would reach persuadable voters.

Maybe I’m in the minority on this, but I wouldn’t miss the hours of pandering to supposedly key groups or the predictable speeches by sitting Members of Congress or state officeholders. I wouldn’t miss the parade of speakers telling me how poor they were growing up or how many challenges they have overcome.

Keep the candidate videos and the speeches by the nominees for vice president and president. And by all means, keep the balloons. As a country, we need less politics and more balloons.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.