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Why conventions still matter (+video)

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That's not to say there's any doubt about the outcome. Longtime GOP strategist Joe Gaylord ran the rules committee for the 1976 Republican National Convention – the last convention when it wasn't clear who would be the nominee.

"That was a raucous event," says Mr. Gaylord, who went on to play major roles at five more. "Now, it's such a managed stage show."

That, he hastens to add, doesn't mean that conventions aren't worth watching.

Certainly viewers will hear about big issues. This election pits a nominee who wants to carry out the 2010 health-care act against one who wants to repeal it; one who'll work for same-sex marriage against one who'll try to keep marriage between a man and a woman; one who would repeal tax cuts for millionaires against one who would make those tax cuts permanent; one who would continue a government-run Medicare program against one who might convert it to a voucher-based system.

Washington will spend about $15 trillion in the next four years. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have different ideas about where that money should go. The conventions can highlight some of those differences.

Still, the changes in how conventions work and what they do have made people question the value of these events, which received $18 million each in federal subsidies this year, in addition to the $50 million Washington gives each host city for security. In 1996, Ted Koppel, then the popular host of "Nightline," left the Republican convention in San Diego early.

"More of an infomercial than a news event," he said, arguing that gavel-to-gavel coverage of them wasn't useful anymore.

Is that true? Does knowing who the nominees will be really mean there's no news worth reporting? How exactly have conventions changed over the years? Are they still important?

* * *

Asking whether conventions are important is not the same as asking whether they've reflected important things. There's no doubt that since 1832, each of the 44 Democratic and 37 Republican conventions has featured clashes over wrenching national issues.

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