There is an infectious excitement at U.S. political conventions. Usually, by the time party delegates cast ballots, the internal warfare over the nomination is over and the vote a formality.
In 2008 it was a bruising campaign as Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination. But on the floor of the convention in Denver, when it was time for New York to pledge its 282 delegates, Clinton stepped to the microphone and declared, “I move that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by this convention by acclamation …”
Before she could finish the sentence, the arena that was teeming with thousands of rival Obama and Clinton delegates erupting with cheers and applause.
Conventions can be rowdy and there is often intrigue behind the scenes. But ultimately, they are staged at the point when the party is ready to pull together because time is growing short and the real foe is the nominee of the other party. And everyone in the arena can agree on that.
My first U.S. political convention was in the summer of 1984, a historic moment for women in politics.
Democrats from every state gathered in the Moscone Center in San Francisco and I was there largely as an observer, helping with coverage by the PBS affiliate station in Chicago.
The atmosphere was electric. I was wide-eyed as I took it all in. The speeches by Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson were powerful and moving. Even small things were new to me: my credential was embossed with a hologram. I’d never seen a hologram before. A female correspondent in a blazer and skirt scampered by wearing white running shoes. I’d never seen that ensemble before either.
Walter Mondale, who had been Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, was challenged by Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson for the Democratic nomination that summer. Mondale prevailed in no small measure thanks to his selection of Geraldine Ferraro, a New York Congresswoman, as his running mate.
Up to that point, Mondale was not getting much traction in the polls. But selecting the first female to be on the presidential ticket of a major party infused Democrats and many voters with renewed purpose and hope.
“I looked for the best Vice President, and I found her in Gerry Ferraro,” Mondale said.
Mondale hoped to capitalize on the sensation this was creating while not giving the impression it was in any way a gimmick designed to give a boost to a struggling campaign.
Ferraro sounded Kennedy-esque when she told the assembled delegates, “The issue is not what America can do for women, but what women can do for America.”
By the end of the convention, the Democratic delegates were energized. Polls had begun to show the gap closing on the front running incumbent, Ronald Reagan. And the Mondale-Ferraro team looked to me like world-beaters — I was very swayed by the excitement I saw at the convention.
Fast forward three and a half months through the rough and tumble of the campaign, and election night that November looked nothing like what I had seen in July. Mondale won only his home state, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia. Reagan won 49 states. The electoral college score was Reagan-Bush 525, Mondale-Ferraro 13.
The experience taught me an early lesson: don’t rely on a single and clearly partisan convention to gauge how the electorate at large is feeling.
The experience also taught Democratic voters a lesson: it seemed America wasn’t ready for a woman to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
It would be decades before a woman was again asked by a male Democratic nominee to be on his ticket. After the ’84 election, Time Magazine concluded that Ferraro appeared to hurt Mondale at the polls more than she helped him, and quoted a woman in Memphis saying, “I’m a liberated woman, but I don’t think a woman should be running things in Washington.”
A woman would not make it onto a presidential ticket again for another 24 years, and this time it would be the Republicans who would give it a shot.
John McCain was the GOP nominee and like Mondale a quarter-century earlier, his campaign was trailing a more charismatic opponent.
It was late summer and the Democratic Convention had just ended — the one where Hillary Clinton threw her support to Obama, the party’s first-ever African American Presidential nominee.
The event was a huge success and a historic occasion. A day later, just as I arrived from Denver in Minneapolis for the Republican convention, I heard the news that John McCain had picked his vice-presidential nominee — Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska.
I was taken aback. I knew nothing about her. Her name had not been bandied about at all. Speculation had revolved around names such as Joe Lieberman, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.
My first reaction was, “Oh my gosh, McCain must be in trouble.” I was aware that the polls had him trailing, but to me, this choice was like McCain showing his cards — that he was in trouble and needed to swing for the fences.
But then, Sarah Palin instantly performed well. You could feel the buzz during the Convention. By the time she made her acceptance speech, delegates were over the moon.
Palin described herself as a hockey mom: “You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.” The crowd ate it up. They were more excited about her, I’d say, than Democrats had been about Ferraro in ’84 — in part because she was so new and brash and unknown just a week earlier.
I rushed out of the arena in St. Paul to corral delegates as they left, and they were genuinely thrilled. Was I remembering the lesson from 1984, not to read too much into a partisan convention? Nope. I went back to Washington convinced Palin was a gamechanger in the race.
Just to test my assumptions, I went to a daytime rally in Virginia featuring Palin a couple of days later. The crowd was huge, enthusiastic and was mostly women. Just like Mondale-Ferraro, McCain-Palin got an immediate bump in the polls.
But once again in the free-for-all of the campaign, it didn’t last. And once again a woman on a presidential ticket came up empty.
Then came the Hillary Clinton experience in 2016. A woman who was at the top of the ticket and at the top of the polls was poised to make history.
And then her election night imploded. Another huge disappointment for Democrats and progressives and for women.
Which brings us to August 2020.
Joe Biden has selected Kamala Harris to be his running mate. And this time it does seem different. Unswayed by the hoopla of a convention — because there isn’t one this year — Harris emerged from an all-female field of qualified competitors to be Biden’s choice.
Unlike Mondale and McCain before him, Biden is not throwing a “Hail Mary” pass by selecting a woman. He has consistently led the polls for months. Mondale and McCain were trying to shake up their races with women who were virtual unknowns. Biden chose a high-profile political rival.
“She’s not just a symbolic choice, it’s a smart political choice,” says Michael Lebo, the chair of Western University’s political science department. “She’s a powerhouse in the party and helps a lot more than just adding a woman to the ticket.”
Forty-eight consecutive white males have occupied the office of vice president. Harris, should she become the 49th vice president, would be the first woman and the first person of colour to hold that office.
The gallery of vice presidents prompted presidential historian Michael Beschloss to lament, “Look at all these vice presidents of the past. Is there one Black person? No. Is there one woman who served as vice president? No. In the whole history of the vice presidency, it doesn’t mirror our glorious diversity.”
Something else gives Harris a boost her predecessors did not have: since the last presidential election in 2016, two powerful movements have become more organized — #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. Kamala Harris is a candidate who embodies both causes.
The deeply troubled presidency of Donald Trump is another factor that favours the historic Biden-Harris ticket. The midterm elections two years ago showed an electorate that had turned away from Republicans and Trumpism. Since then, Trump has been impeached and has presided over a disjointed response to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic collapse.
Barring extraordinary intervention such as suppression of voting — which shouldn’t be taken lightly — historic change is at hand.
Yes, we’ve seen the rosy outlook for presidential tickets featuring women several times now, and they’ve all gone up in smoke. And Trump is already putting his bully pulpit to work, calling Harris “angry” and “nasty,” terms that have racist and sexist undertones.
But whatever success Trump has with some voters by doubling down on race and gender, I think it will also have the effect of reinforcing the growing sentiment in America that he needs to go.
Even if polls suggest Biden is going to win, Americans who want Trump out are less likely to succumb to over-confidence and stay home. Trump’s manner is a motivator that could make this election a landslide.
It seems to me Biden is as well-positioned to defeat the incumbent as any challenger since Reagan took down Jimmy Carter.
And yet given Biden’s age — he’s 77 — Lebo thinks there is something even more historic to come with Harris.
“Not only did he pick a vice presidential nominee, but he probably also picked the front runner for the 2024 Democratic nomination. And that it’s a woman of colour is a big deal.”
“We’re definitely in a new era.”
It’s an era that began in 1984 when a woman first got a genuine shot at the White House. Thirty-six years later, a woman may finally get there.
Eric Sorensen is Senior National Affairs Correspondent for Global News. He is a former Washingon Bureau Chief for Global News and has covered multiple election campaigns and U.S. Presidential Conventions. As an incoming Benton Fellow at the University of Chicago, Sorensen also covered the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.