Behind the Scenes: The Making of a Democratic National Convention

5 years ago

In 2005, I worked at the Democratic National Committee for then-Chairman, Governor Howard Dean. I started in July of that year, and one of my first assignments was to get a group of party insiders together to start planning the 2008 convention. I got to send out RFPs, converse with mayors, work on travel and logistics until I left the party in 2007.

In 2008, I had the pleasure of watching what started as a group of 10 people in Governor Dean’s office turn into this massive event watched by people all over the world. I remembered the day we received Denver’s proposal, and then I got to see it all come alive. And for those of you who have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a national party convention -- I got to sit down the the Reverend Leah Daughtry, the CEO of the 2008 convention.

BlogHer: The big question on everyone’s mind: How long does it take to plan the convention from start to finish?

Reverend Leah Daughtry: Generally, you start with with the site selection process, after a new Democratic Party chairman has been elected. And that takes about a year, just to do the request for proposal (RFP) that goes out to the major cities in the country. From the writing of the RFP until the selection of the city and the writing of the contract generally takes a year to 18 months. Once the city is selected, you then move to actual convention planning -- and that takes two years or more.

BH: That must require a lot of manpower. How big is the team that you use from the beginning to the big show?

RLD: You start with a small team -- maybe 10 people -- in the beginning. By the time you move to the city -- the staff is on the ground for about a year -- you have 10 to 20. By the time you move to convention week, there is a staff of 300, plus volunteers.

BH: How long does it take to get the convention center ready?

RLD: There’s a whole construction selection team RFP process, to choose the firm that is going to do the construction of the actual set. Then you select a producer, who helps you with the look of the set and helps with the design, and what it is going to physically look like; the construction team does all of the wiring behind that. There are then two periods -- limited access, where you can come and go on a schedule; you usually have limited access for about four months or so. You then have unlimited access, where you have one hundred percent control of the arena -- they actually give you the keys. You have that for about 45 days to 60 days, depending on the arena.

BH: Do you have to close up immediately after the convention is over?

RLD: We immediately close up. If you ever go into the hall the day after the convention, it’s like a ghost town because the breakdown happens that night. As soon as the gavel goes down, the breakdown starts.

BH: You mentioned that the production that goes into the convention. What all goes into deciding the look of the convention?

RLD: In 2008, we selected a producer, which was the producer we have had since 1992. We then selected a set designer, which involved my going to California, and they bring you mockups for ideas of what they think the set should look like. I finally chose Bruce Rodgers, because he gave me something totally different. [Rodgers] is used to doing rock shows ... he does Springsteen sets. So he gave us a completely brand-new look from what we had been experiencing for the last few conventions. Once you have a producer and a set designer on hand, you then start meetings.

In 2008, we didn’t know who the candidate was going to be, so we met with Governor [Howard] Dean (D-VT), myself, the producer and other creative people that we liked. We started looking at drawings. We wanted something that would give us a lot of flexibility: highly visual, visually engaging, modern, cutting-edge-looking. You tell that to the set designer, and he comes back with three or four drawings, and you pick one.

BH: So simple! You mentioned that in 2008 you didn’t know who the nominee was going to be. Did that make it more stressful? (Then-Senator Clinton did not officially release her delegates until Wednesday morning. President Obama accepted the nomination on Thursday evening).

RLD: That made the logistics harder, as there are some decisions that you want to hold until you have a nominee -- for example, what state is going to sit where and hotel room allocation. Because we were so late in 2008, we wound up keeping both sides informed and briefed. They both saw the set in separate briefings, and we did hotel allocations -- equally to both sides -- as best we could. And then a pot for a winner: “You get A, you get A, and then the winner gets B and C in addition." It was June, almost, when we could make final decisions.

It was a little bit stressful. But the logistics of a convention are like building a house: The decisions pile on top of each other, and at some point you just need to make that final decision. It’s hard to wait as we did in ‘08. Sometimes you just have to make a decision and hope they like it.

BH: From the viewers' perspective, the convention seems like a very scripted event. Can you give any insight into who will be invited to speak and when they will speak? These are very coveted spots..

RLD: Yes, they are. Particularly as prime time coverage has been reduced. When I first started doing conventions in ‘92, we had three hours of coverage every night on network television. So, you had a lot of space to maneuver people. Now you have an hour every night on primetime on NBC, ABC, and CBS and so who gets in that 10-11 PM slot becomes very coveted. Most of it is driven by the nominee, and the message that they want to convey over the course of the convention days. Then you match that with the politics of the party and the people that you know have to speak, from the traditional to the constituencies: women to African Americans to Latinos and labor that the depth and the breadth of the party is represented. You have these groups represented because of their commitment to the [Democratic] party. Then the nominee goes in and decides the best people to tell the campaign story, and those who they think will advance the theme of the general election, and you fill in with clergy and music and so forth..

BH: Speaking of music; how do you balance the entertainment factor with the serious business of the convention?.

RLD: You have 17,000 to 18,000 people in the hall. You can’t just talk to them straight for four hours, so you have to have music in there to keep things moving and keep it lively. Also to keep delegates engaged and awake! People need to experience a good show.

The important thing to remember about a convention is that you’re really playing to three audiences: You’ve got your delegates, who come on their own dime. The delegates have run these races and won their seats, so you want to make sure they’re comfortable and having a good time in the city, and you want them to be energized when they leave -- so you want to make sure they have a good experience. Part of the show is making sure they have a good experience. Even the parts that you don’t see.

The second audience is the media. You want them to be comfortable and have the tools that they need to do the job that they came here to do so they don’t write cranky stories. Cranky media means cranky stories.

BH: [Laughs.]

RLD: If they don’t have charging stations or their workplace is inadequate or the hotel room has living things in it...

BH: [Laughs.]

RLD:...they’re going to be cranky and write cranky stories and that’s not what we want. And the third audience is the people that watch it on television. That’s when we want the set to translate to the viewer, and the themes, look, messages. When you’re planning this, you’re constantly thinking of these three audiences, and how the decisions you make are going to work for any of the three of them.

BH: How do you think this convention will differ from 2008?

RLD: I think that the major difference is that it’s a historic moment, but not freighted with the history of 2008, where there was either a woman or an African American. By the time of the convention, we knew that Barack Obama was going to be the nominee and we were pretty sure that he was going to be the president, so it was the history of all the firsts. You have some of that this time, but it’s not as heavy.

We’re in a smaller city, which makes it a more intimate convention. You can walk around Charlotte. You can really see people and talk to people, and everything is very compact.

In terms of message, we have a sitting president talking to us about what he has accomplished. He has the history of his own accomplishments that he must share and promote, and, in some cases, defend. And talk to us about how he’s going to build on that for the future. In 2008 we had his campaign promises, but there wasn’t this record that he needed to tout. He had his record as a senator, but not as president. That will make the dynamics of how he will talk about the next four years a little bit different.

And, of course, we have lots of diversity, even more than the last convention. The hall is different; it’s even set up differently, and this is the first time we’ve had it set up this way -- which will make a different look and feel. It’s very intimate. There are lots of little changes and big changes, because we have the first African American president who has a stellar record to tout -- but for some people, to defend, and we’re looking forward to see what he’s going to be doing in the future. We want to see him build on the successes he’s had so far. .

Thanks, Leah!

Heather L. Barmore Poliogue: The Art of Political Dialogue

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