Across the last 20 cycles since 1936 there has been no positive correlation connecting shorter gaps between conventions with the president’s party holding the White House that November
Although the Republican National Convention was not without its share of controversies and unforced errors, the party is nonetheless hoping for the much-hyped ‘convention bounce’ in nominee Donald Trump’s polling numbers.
Trump entered the convention a few points behind Clinton nationally – closing the gap a bit in recent weeks after Jim Comey’s critical review of Hillary Clinton’s email protocol while serving as Secretary of State.
Democrats, meanwhile, are counting on the media’s quick exodus eastward from Cleveland to Philadelphia this week to shift conversation to their party and nominee and thus curb any national momentum that might be brewing for Trump.
For example, it has been frequently recounted how Mitt Romney failed to enjoy a rise in the polls after he accepted his party’s nomination in Tampa in late August 2012. Democrats held their convention in Charlotte just five days later.
But is a smaller gap between conventions necessarily advantageous to the party holding their convention last? Are those parties more likely to win in November?
For many decades, the custom has been for the party of the sitting president to hold their convention after that of the challenging party.
However, that has only been the case since 1936.
From 1840 through 1932, the challenging party held their national convention after that of the sitting president’s party in 19 of 24 cycles, or 79 percent of the time.
Out of power Democrats held their convention following the Whigs in 1844 as well as after the Republicans in 1864, 1868, 1872, 1876, 1880, 1884, 1892, 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1924, 1928, and 1932.
Whigs held their convention almost two weeks after the Democrats at the close of James Polk’s term in 1848 and Republicans held their convention last even while the Democrats governed in 1856, 1860, and 1888.
[Note: During the fractious 1860 cycle, Democrats held their first convention from April 23rd through May 3rd but could not settle on a nominee after nearly 60 rounds of balloting. Republicans met two weeks later from May 16th to 18th and then Democrats gathered for a second convention in Baltimore from June 18th to 23rd when they (the northern states) settled on Stephen Douglas as their nominee].
Since 1936, the party out of power has convened before the party controlling the presidency in all 21 cycles.
During each of the last three cycles, the party running the White House has attempted to ‘step on’ their rival’s convention by gathering less than a week later after their rivals:
- 2008 (4 days): Democrats (August 25-28); Republicans (September 1-4)
- 2012 (5 days): Republicans (August 27-30); Democrats (September 4-6)
- 2016 (4 days): Republicans (July 18-21); Democrats (July 25-28)
While this recent trend of a very short separation between the two conventions is historically unusual, there have sporadically been equally short intervals – just not during the last half century:
- 1912 (3 days): Republicans (June 18-22); Democrats (June 25-July 2)
- 1916 (4 days): Republicans (June 7-10); Democrat (June 14-16)
- 1956 (3 days): Democrats (August 13-17); Republicans (August 20-23)
Since 1936, the average period between the two conventions has been 19 days.
The longest pause during this 80-year stretch was 39 days reached in 1964 between the RNC in San Francisco (July 13-16) and the DNC in Atlantic City (August 24-27) and in 1972 between the DNC (July 10-13) and the RNC (August 21-23) – both held in Miami Beach.
There have also been gaps of more than a month between the two major party conventions in four other cycles since 1936:
- 1976 (32 days): Democrats (July 12-15); Republicans (August 16-19)
- 1984 (32 days): Democrats (July 16-19); Republicans (August 20-23)
- 1992 (32 days): Democrats (July 13-16); Republicans (August 17-20)
- 2004 (32 days): Democrats (July 26-29); Republicans (August 30-September 2)
And so, will the Democratic strategy of having a short interval after the RNC in 2016 ultimately translate into a White House victory?
Since 1936, when the party in the White House has held their convention less than two weeks after their opposition, it has held the seat four times (1936, 1956, 1996, 2012) and lost control in four cycles (1952, 1960, 2000, 2008). The average gap was 8.1 days during these cycles.
But when the president’s party has convened their national convention more than two weeks after their opponent’s convention, it has held the White House eight times (1940, 1944, 1948, 1964, 1972, 1984, 1988, 2004) and lost it just four times (1968, 1976, 1980, 1992). The average gap was 27.4 days during these cycles.
Overall, the three longest gaps between major party conventions during the modern two-party era each took place during the mid-19th Century:
- 1840 (151 days): Whigs (December 4-6, 1839); Democrats (May 5-6)
- 1864 (52 days): Republicans (June 7-8); Democrats (August 29-31)
- 1868 (44 days): Republicans (May 20-21); Democrats (July 4-9)
The average length between major party conventions over the last 175 years has been 21.2 days.
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