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You Asked What Role State Party Conventions Play In Indiana. We’ve Got Answers.

Members of the Indiana 2020 Two-Way asked us what role this month’s state Republican and Democratic party conventions play in Indiana elections. To join, text “elections” to 73224.

So, Indiana Public Broadcasting and All IN went to work to answer some of those questions by talking to Statehouse reporter Brandon Smith and University of Indianapolis political science assistant professor Laura Merrifield Wilson.

What are state party conventions?

Wilson says party conventions are basically pep rallies for state political parties. It’s a chance for everyone in the party to get together, meet the candidates and talk about the party’s platform.

“Why are we going to get excited about our candidates? Why do we want people to vote for us?” Wilson says. “And kind of building that enthusiasm that I like to think transitions us from the primary election into the general for November.”

But if you haven’t heard a lot about political conventions before, Wilson says that’s mostly because they aren’t targeted at voters – even political junkies like her.

“I think the average person on the street, right, they probably aren’t paying attention. And generally, these wouldn’t matter. We have some special things going on in Indiana right now. But usually, these are focused on your partisan – especially your hyper-partisan,” Wilson says. “Certainly the delegates, people who are candidates, people who are working for campaigns.”

Outside of this conversation, she says there’s a lot the average voter can read about state party conventions. 

“Personally for convention information, I would go right to the party source,” Wilson says. “They’re pretty open. They’re pretty transparent in terms of what they stand for and what they’re doing in the convention process.”

Historically, Wilson says the party conventions took the place of primaries – selecting candidates for more political races. Now, the conventions focus far more on platform, though Indiana still selects attorney general, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, secretary of state, and state auditor through conventions. 

This year both Republicans and Democrats held their conventions virtually. 

“That’s a more recent change, and something I’d say – I don’t know that we’ll anticipate that staying in the future,” Wilson says. 

What are the differences between the Indiana Democratic and Republican conventions?

This year is a bit different than previous. Usually the processes are fairly similar – though there are some small nuanced differences. For example, Democrats vote on national delegates at their state party convention, but Republicans mostly make those selections at the district level.

Democrats hosted their convention before this conversation. Smith says Democrats had sent out mail-in ballots two weeks before the convention speeches were broadcast. But Republicans aren’t sending theirs out until after the convention.

“So this will give these four [attorney general] candidates a chance to address every single one of those delegates before a single one of them has cast a vote,” Smith says. “Now, the good bet is many of them have already decided how they’re going to vote. But for sure, none of them have sent in a ballot yet.” 

Who gets to attend party conventions? And how does someone become a delegate?

Wilson says usually party conventions are for delegates, candidates, people involved with the party, and media who are reporting on the conventions. But she does see it as the one thing that might change from this year’s virtual conventions.

“If there was interest, if there’s enthusiasm or appeal that people like the transparency of people being able to access just a little bit of this,” Wilson says.

Wilson says people can choose to run to be a state delegate. 

“Individuals choose to run and then they’re on the ballot as a delegate,” Wilson says. “They’re either voted in or not, and then they represent.”

State parties have different numbers of delegates.

What are the biggest differences between state party conventions and the national party conventions?

It really comes down to the size and focus. State party conventions select attorney general, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, secretary of state, and state auditor. But national party conventions are solely focused on the presidential election, says Wilson.

The national conventions may highlight other candidates as keynote speakers, pointing to rising stars in the party. 

“[State conventions] are highlighting a lot of different things policy-wise. On the national level, it is that really singular focus on the presidency and looking at that in November,” Wilson says.

Do the Black and Latino Caucuses have a place at these conventions?

Smith says like other groups within political parties, the Black and Latino Caucuses help select delegates and candidates, along with forming the party’s platform.

“As far as I’m aware, they don’t have any sort of official role in having a certain number of delegates or anything like that,” he says.

How can we weaken the divisive influence these primaries and conventions create in our elections?

Wilson says the conventions play into the farthest side of each party. She says, imagining the political spectrum as a bell curve, playing to an audience of hyper-partisans, candidates don’t want to come across as the middle part of that curve. 

“That’s who you need to be as a candidate for the general, sure,” Wilson says. “But you’re not going to win any favors in an audience of people who are at state party conventions.” 

That’s true for the primary process as well, she says. It’s inherent to the purpose of political parties.

“They serve to provide that cheap, easy but effective label of saying, you’re a Democrat, you’re a Republican – you stand for these things,” Wilson says.

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But the way to address divisiveness isn’t in primaries or conventions. It’s instead up to general election voters.

“I think that’s on us, as voters, as citizens, as people paying attention to politics to kind of challenge the candidates and probe at what they’re doing,” Wilson says.

Smith says it also comes down to making our election system more fair. Especially in Indiana, primaries have become more important than the general election because those races are no longer competitive.

“Primary voters are more polarized, so you’re not going to win an election as a Republican by going towards the center, you’re going to win by going further to the right. As a Democrat, you’re not going to win by going to the center, you’re going to win by going further to the left” he says. “And so the folks who ultimately end up at the Statehouse are the folks who have been pushed further to the right and further to the left.” 

How are private organizations like the Indiana Republican Party and Democratic Party allowed to use taxpayer money to pay for their conventions?

They aren’t, says Smith. These are private organizations, funded through private dollars. There is not a line item in the state budget that pays for state party conventions.

Contact Lauren at lchapman@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.