Democrats Gather in Denver to Nominate Obama and Biden

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember. This week, the Democrats meet to nominate Barack Obama for president and his choice for vice president. The announcement Saturday of his choice of Senator Joe Biden of Delaware included an Obama campaign text message to supporters.

Next week is the Republican nominating convention. John McCain is expected to announce his running mate this Friday.

Today on our program we look at the conventions and their history.


The Democratic National Convention opens Monday in Denver, in the western state of Colorado. Organizers of the four-day event expect fifty thousand people.

Denver, a kilometer and a half above sea level, is called the "Mile-High City." The last time Denver hosted a national political convention was the Democratic convention one hundred years ago. Denver residents brought snow from the Rocky Mountains so the delegates could have a snowball fight.

The Republican National Convention will take place from September first through the fourth in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the Midwest. Minneapolis and Saint Paul are known as the Twin Cities. Party leaders expect forty-five thousand delegates, party officials, media people and others.

Minnesota last hosted a national political convention in eighteen ninety-two, and that year it was also the Republicans.

Political protests are expected during both conventions. Denver has established a protest area. Activists say the area is too far from the convention to be meaningful.

Some people think the possibility of protests may increase television ratings for the conventions. But viewing of the conventions has fallen over the years. Broadcast TV networks now limit their live coverage mainly to the major speeches in the evening.

Speakers on Monday night in Denver will include Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

American political parties hold conventions every four years to nominate candidates for president and vice president. But the conventions are also a time to take care of other business. Party members approve a campaign platform -- a statement of goals and positions on issues.

They also elect the party's national committee and approve rules for the nominating process for the next election. They listen to speeches. And they get to enjoy entertainment, parties and four days of national attention.


Congressional leaders used to choose presidential nominees. It became clear that a new system was needed. The first national convention was held in Baltimore, Maryland, in eighteen thirty-one. It was held by a party that no longer exists -- the Anti-Masonic Party.

The first Democratic convention took place a year later, in eighteen thirty-two. The modern Republican Party was not formed until the eighteen fifties.

One of the rules approved at that first Democratic convention was the two-thirds rule. It required a nominee to receive the votes of two-thirds of the convention delegates. The two-thirds rule lasted for just over a century, until nineteen thirty-six. Now, only a simple majority is needed to nominate a candidate -- Democrat or Republican.

Another rule approved at that first Democratic convention was the unit rule. It required all the delegates in a state to support the winner in that state.

The Democrats ended the unit rule in nineteen sixty-eight. The Republicans, however, continue to use the winner-take-all system in some states.

The nominating process at the convention involves a huge gathering of delegates, grouped by states and territories. One by one, each delegation is called to announce its votes.

In the past, many ballots were needed to choose a candidate. Between ballots, political deal makers would negotiate with the delegations for support. For example, it took fifty-nine votes to choose Senator Stephen Douglas as the Democratic nominee in eighteen sixty.

Sometimes a "dark horse" would appear. This is a candidate who has little or no support at the start of the convention but wins the nomination.

Historians point to James Polk in eighteen forty-four as an example of a dark horse candidate. Polk's name was not placed into the voting until the eighth ballot. The Democrat was nominated on the ninth vote, and Americans elected him president that November.


The presidential nominating conventions bring news media from around the world. But the meetings are now carefully directed and the results of the balloting are no longer a surprise.

Changes took place following the nineteen sixty-eight Democratic convention in Chicago. At that time, many Democrats supported Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. He was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. But Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination because he controlled a majority of the delegates.

Historians say anger about the situation was one of the reasons for the rioting that took place at the Chicago convention. The Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, went on to defeat Humphrey for the presidency.

During the convention, Democratic Party officials appointed a committee to find a new way to choose nominees. Until then, the results of state primary elections were advisory only. Delegates did not have to follow the wishes of party members in their state.

After nineteen sixty-eight, the Democratic and Republican parties decided to make the primary results binding on delegates.

So primaries and caucus meetings can now decide the nominees long before the conventions. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, for example, secured enough delegates in March to receive his party's nomination next week.

Yet, as this year's Democratic primary season showed, there is still room for a long and lively campaign.

Delegates awarded to a candidate based on state results are called pledged delegates. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois won more of them than Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. But he did not win enough to secure the nomination with pledged delegates alone.

What will give him the majority to be nominated this week is the promised support of "superdelegates." These are hundreds of party leaders and elected Democrats who have the right to vote as they wish. The party created superdelegates in the early nineteen eighties.

But the Democrats will still place Hillary Clinton's name in nomination, calling it a way to honor her. The plan, jointly announced this month by the Obama and Clinton campaigns, is part of an attempt to unite the party. Senator Clinton will also speak during the convention.

The convention will close Thursday night with Senator Obama's acceptance speech. The speech has been moved to Denver's outdoor football stadium which holds more than seventy-five thousand people.

The last time a major presidential candidate did something like this was at the nineteen sixty Democratic convention. John Kennedy gave his acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Conventions include a keynote speaker. Being chosen to give one of these speeches can help bring a rising politician to national attention. Barack Obama spoke at the Democratic convention in Boston four years ago. At that time he was a state senator running for the United States Senate.

This year the keynote speaker for the Democrats will be former Virginia governor Mark Warner, a current candidate for the Senate. He will speak Tuesday night, the same night as Hillary Clinton.

One leading Democrat who has announced he will not attend the convention is John Edwards. The former candidate in this year's presidential campaign recently admitted that he cheated on his wife.

For the Republicans, opening-night speakers next Monday will include President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Also on the list is Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. He was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee with Al Gore in two thousand. Senator Lieberman is now an independent who has been talked about as a possible running mate with John McCain.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and presidential candidate, will give the keynote speech on Tuesday. Cindy McCain, the candidate's wife, will speak the next night.

So will Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the nation's first governor whose family comes from India.

John McCain will give his acceptance speech next Thursday on the last night of the convention.

James McCann is a political science professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He says convention speeches are a way to begin the party's general election campaign. If done well, he says, they will present the issues in a way that will help the party gain support between now and the election, on November fourth.


Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. For VOA coverage of the conventions, and for transcripts and MP3s of our programs, go to And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.