Do conventions still matter?

Delegates wave signs at the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City, September 1, 2004. Convention delegates formally nominated President George W. Bush for another four-year term on August 31, 2004. JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

(CBS News) TAMPA, Fla. -  Political conventions are as much a tradition in American politics as elections - the Democrats held their first convention in 1832, the Republicans in 1856. One hundred and eighty years later, the parties continue to ramp up for the biggest political event every four years, but the purpose has changed dramatically from an ordeal full of pomp and circumstance to a tightly-scripted event that includes lots of pomp but, according to critics, hardly any circumstance.

Like the earliest political conventions, the party will officially nominate its candidate (Mitt Romney is still the presumptive Republican nominee until the official roll call is taken and tallied during Tuesday's session). But with the disappearance of the power of party bosses and the rise of the primary and caucus process, the parties' nominees are all but decided long before conventions and the events have evolved into virtual infomercials. The question is: Do they still play a relevant role in American politics?

The determining role of early conventions

Hurricane Isaac, which led to the cancellation of the first day of this year's Republican convention, is incomparable to the political storms that used to erupt on the convention stage. For instance, at the Democrats' 1864 convention, during the Civil War, a congressman from Maryland, Benjamin Givinn Harris, pulled a gun on the crowd after a fight erupted on the stage over the two possible nominees - George McClellan and Thomas Harry Seymour.

Not all early-day conventions included threats of violence, but many were contentious as the stakes were high: Determining who the party's presidential candidate would be.

During the 1880 Republican convention, it took party delegates six days and 36 ballots to choose James Garfield to be their nominee, besting General Ulysses Grant by a few dozen votes. Seventy two years later, in 1952, the Democratic convention proved to be a highly contentious affair. Delegates negotiated for six days on which of the 10 candidates would be the nominee. The outcome from backroom negotiations and arm twisting resulted in the nomination of Adlai Stevenson, who was not one of the 10 original contenders.

Conventions' Dramatic Evolution

Conventions remained battlegrounds for political parties through the middle of the 19th century before they became redefined into modern-day coronations for candidates.

The 1952 conventions proved to be a defining moment for the evolution of the parties' conventions. It was the first set of conventions widely televised to millions of Americans. Many were disenchanted with the intraparty fights and the smoke-filled, back room dealing and it ushered in the process to change the conventions, a sentiment that continued and was codified after the Democrats' 1968 convention.

As riots and protests erupted on the streets of Chicago over the Vietnam War, the tension and the fighting inside the convention hall in 1968 was just as intense. Hubert Humphrey was the favorite of Democratic Party leaders, but anti-war candidate George McGovern staged an intense challenge to the establishment.

"I was an eyewitness to those scenes: inside the convention hall, with daily shouting matches between red-faced delegates and party leaders often lasting until 3 o'clock in the morning," Haynes Johnson, who has written more than a dozen books on the Democratic conventions, wrote in Smithsonian's magazine about the 1968 convention.

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Following Humphrey's nomination in 1968, McGovern, who became the party's nominee in 1972, led the charge to reform the nominating process for the Democratic Party, leading to modern day politics and political conventions. What eventually became a 50-state primary and caucus system replaced the knockdown drag out fights of convention nominations. The Republican Party soon followed suit.

With pitfalls far less dramatic than the gun-pulling antics of yesteryear, some conventions still include some element of drama. The 1992 GOP affair was considered controversial as Pat Buchanan, who fought a tough primary battle against President George H.W. Bush, delivered an off-message speech focused on social issues

Mitt Romney's Convention Contention

This year's convention, celebrating Mitt Romney, has its own hiccups.

Backers of libertarian-leaning Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who built a movement with his smaller government and "end the Federal Reserve" platform, has yet to fully endorse Mitt Romney, and the Republican Party has attempted to sideline them.

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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