When: Aug. 25-28, 2008
Nominee: Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois
If political conventions are now largely pageants — and they are — the 2008 convention that nominated Barack Obama set a standard against which other such gatherings will be measured.
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A successful convention wasn’t automatic, though. For months Obama had battled Hillary Clinton in state after state, scrapping for primary and caucus voters and the delegates those contests would bring. America learned of something called “superdelegates,” the party leaders and power brokers who could cast votes on the convention floor for anyone they wanted.
The discomfort between the two campaigns only grew as spring turned into early summer. Many Democrats worried openly about a contested convention in Denver, or an unmanageable split between Obama and Clinton that would alienate one side or the other.
In March there had even been quiet talk of a “mini-convention,” where superdelegates could hash out their differences and hand the nomination to one of the two candidates.
“If we continue down the path we are on, we might as well hand the keys of the White House to John McCain,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said at the time.
As it turned out, Cleaver’s concerns were misplaced. By the end of the spring, Clinton realized that she could not catch Obama in pledged delegates and that superdelegates weren’t going to budge. In an emotional speech in early June, she suspended her campaign.
“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” Clinton said, referring to the number of votes she got during the primary season.
The decision left the Obama team free to clean up the final details — putting Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware on the ticket, for example. (In a bow to new technology, the campaign announced the choice by email.) Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was considered for the post but fell short.
And they could choreograph the Denver convention, scrubbing it clean of controversy or disruption. Clinton’s disappointment was massaged — she got a prime speaking spot. The campaign and the party would give each night a theme, and delegates would sit dutifully in their chairs watching the pageant unfold, much like movie extras, which they had largely become.
Once in Denver, all proceeded according to plan. Then, a gamble: Obama would move his convention speech from the convention hall to what was then called Invesco Field at Mile High, the stadium where the NFL’s Broncos played.
The template was President John Kennedy, who accepted his nomination at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960.
The plan was risky on three fronts. First, the weather: Rain or wind could spoil the speech, distracting the nation from hearing the candidate. And the logistics were complicated, requiring media, delegates and party officials to move their operations a mile down the road on the convention’s final day.
Most importantly, the move could backfire politically. If the 80,000-seat stadium was half-empty, Republicans would suggest Obama was less popular than he seemed. The GOP was already mocking the Democrat’s “celebrity” campaign.
Republicans’ concerns seemed justified when television networks broadcast the first pictures from the stadium. The stage was set with a faux-concrete backdrop that suspiciously resembled a Roman temple. The GOP would laugh at the setup for weeks.
But in every other way, the final night of the convention served Obama’s purposes, and the party’s. The weather was crystal clear, with a gentle August breeze cooling the venue. Some 84,000 people crowded into the stadium, filling it to the top — and providing broadcasters with colorful video of excited delegates and Obama supporters.
And there was a sense of history: For the first time, a major political party in the United States had nominated a black man for president. Exactly 45 years earlier, hundreds of thousands of people had marched for civil rights on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech.
Obama’s own address fell just short of expectations, though: too long, some said, too broad.
“The change we need is coming,” Obama said that night, reciting a lengthy list of policy promises.
But taken as a whole — the setting, the speech, the history — Obama’s closing night in Denver remains one of the most electric moments in modern American political history.
“When Barack Obama came out on the platform to give his acceptance speech, everything changed,” remembered Fred Logan, a longtime Republican who covered the convention for KCTV in Kansas City.
“I looked up in the stands at Invesco Field and saw that many African-American delegates were weeping,” he said. “I watched tears stream down the cheeks of one African-American delegate and thought, ‘I am watching an earth-shattering event in the political life of our nation.’ ”