The Worst of the 16 Presidential Nominating Conventions I've Covered

Feb 24, 2018

It's a fact; I have been to 16 presidential nominating conventions, Democratic and Republican, over the course of my career covering politics.

Some would say this cruel and unusual punishment is more than any one human being deserves.

After all, the political people only go to their own party's conventions. I go to both. Often in back-to-back weeks.

People often ask me which conventions have been the worst to cover and which have been the best.

I've never really sat down and categorized them – they all have their good points and bad points – but this is an attempt to write a bit about the three worst and the three best that I've been to.

And a word of caution: This has nothing to do with which party's convention I am writing about. From a political standpoint, they are all pretty much the same to me.

This is about logistics, working conditions. Living conditions. What the parties do or don't do to make it easier for the thousands of journalists on hand to do their jobs.

And, in some cases, it's just plain atmosphere. The atmosphere hanging over a convention can stink (especially when the party faithful know they are going to lose); or it can be a wild celebration, when the people believe they are headed for victory in the fall.

This week, we'll look at the three worst. Next week, we'll take a look at the three best conventions.

Don't read anything into the fact that the three worst were all Republican affairs. You will find next week that two of the three best conventions were put on by the Republicans.

So, here's the list of the worst of the worst, in order of misery:

2016, Republican National Convention, Cleveland:

Ohio might have been – officially at least – the host delegation for the crowning of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, but it also was the most despised by the Trump campaign.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich won the Ohio presidential primary (the only state he won in his long, hard slog through the presidential primaries and caucuses) and everybody in the delegation was pledged to him.

At the convention in Quicken Loans Arena, that animosity between the Trump camp and the Kasich crowd meant a pretty poor position on the floor of the convention.

It also meant that the Ohio delegation was given a hotel that, while nice, was not big enough for all the people the Ohio Republican Party needed to house.

The Ohio media was the first to be chopped off the hotel list. The ORP secured a bunch of dormitory-style apartments that encircled the football field and track of Case Western Reserve University.

Each apartment had four bedrooms; I was thrown in with two roommates.

Most of us arrived on Sunday and checked into Case Western after picking up credentials.

Each room had a swag basket full of gifts from Ohio politicians, stuff that we as journalists were not supposed to accept – an umbrella, a collapsible cooler, a blue plastic tumbler from Rob Portman and a convention glass from Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted proclaiming himself to be "Ohio's Future."

Much of it was made in China, of course.

Many of us were dead tired and went to bed early that night, in anticipation of catching a 6 a.m. shuttle bus to the Doubletree for the Ohio delegation breakfast.

Then, in the dead of night, there came a banging on the door. It was a young GOP operative, a college kid, saying he had to collect all the swag baskets because they weren't supposed to be given to the media.

These kids were swarming the dorms, collecting all the baskets.

When the kid began banging on my door, I was asleep. I got up and let him in.

Go ahead and take it. I don't want this junk anyway.

The next morning, we were shuttled to the Doubletree, about 10 miles away, in a driving rain.

As it was every morning of the convention, we learned that we would not be fed at the breakfast. Nor would we be transported to Quicken Loans Arena or back to Case Western.

Usually at these things, credentialed media can use the official shuttle buses. We were on our own.

I figured out the first night that if I could get outside the security zone around Quicken Loans Arena and make my way to Cleveland's Public Square, I could spend $2.50 for a ticket on the HealthLine, a bus rapid transit that would take me up Euclid Avenue to within two blocks of my dorm.

I also discovered that there was a Starbucks about two blocks from the dorm that opened at 5 a.m., which meant I could get a muffin or a Danish and a big cup of coffee before the shuttle buses left at 6 a.m.

But there was one thing I could not get around.

The apartment was full of ants. Everywhere.

I woke up one morning and looked down at my feet, where I saw this big black spot on at the end of the bed. It was a mass of ants.

And, no, I was not eating in bed.

Can you imagine why I do not recall my experience in Cleveland that week with fondness?

2012, Republican National Convention, Tampa:

Nothing like a good hurricane to start off a presidential nominating convention.

This was the first convention I covered for WVXU; and I arrived with most of the Ohio delegation and media mid-day Sunday at the Mainsail Suites Conference Center, near the Tampa airport.  

Hurricane Isaac was roaring northward through the Gulf of Mexico; and it looked like a good possibility that it could slam into the Tampa Bay area.

Not the time to be arriving in Tampa for the coronation of Mitt Romney.

By Monday morning, which was supposed to be the first day of the convention, the Republican National Convention gaveled into session for a few minutes and adjourned until Tuesday.

At that point, it was still unclear which direction Isaac would go.

The Ohio delegation had its breakfast that morning in a large ballroom. And, as often ends up being the case, the media covering the delegation was not fed.

There was a woman sitting at a little sales stand outside the ballroom, selling snacks. I bought some energy bars and Snickers (to me, they are one and the same), some bottles of juice and took them back to my suite. It was all the food I would have that day.

Isaac took a turn away from the Tampa Bay area, but it produced incredible winds – strong enough to knock people over who were brave enough to go outside.

Fortunately, by Tuesday morning, the storm had passed and life was back to normal.

I lived on snacks until it was time for the buses to take us to Tampa Bay Times Arena for the first session of what was now a three-day convention.

There, I could buy hot dogs and nachos and all the other stuff you typically find in an NHL arena. I was in heaven.

I really don't like energy bars.

When the session was over, late at night, it was a two-bus trip back to the Ohio hotel.

The first bus took you to the massive parking lot surrounding Raymond James Stadium, Tampa's NFL venue.

There you had to wander around aimlessly, once for over an hour, before you found which of the hundreds of buses lined up was going to your hotel.

This added about two hours to what was already a very long day.

And what did you have to look forward to in four or five hours when you woke up?

An energy bar, of course.

Would that they could all be three-day conventions. Or two. Or even one.

1992, Republican National Convention, Houston:

This was a nightmarish experience on so many levels.

First of all, I was with the Ohio delegation, which was holed up in a Wyndham hotel 24 miles north of the Astrodome, which was the convention site that year.

Generally, the shuttle buses used at these conventions are air conditioned and fairly comfortable. The ones the Ohio delegation used in the summer of 1992 were not. In fact, they were yellow school buses. No air conditioning, despite the fact that, every day, the temperature outside was well over 100 – 110 on one day.

Imagine dozens of hot, sweaty Ohioans packed on a bake oven with wheels for 24 miles in the massive traffic jams of Houston.

It was not a pleasant place to be.

And then there was what awaited us at the Astrodome.

Donald Trump is not the first presidential candidate to whip up public sentiment against the media. George H.W. Bush did his share of that in his 1992 re-election campaign, when he was faced with formidable opposition in Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot.

And, when Pat Buchanan, the conservative columnist who had worked in the Nixon White House, was given a prime time speech to heal the wounds from his challenge to Bush for the nomination, that's when all hell broke loose against the media.

Buchanan's "cultural war" set off a rage among Republicans on the floor of the convention; and it spilled over on to the streets of Houston.

We were spit at; we had people throwing stuff at us in the press section from the floor of the convention. I personally, with my press credentials around my neck, was called every name but Mister. There were many reports of media people being shoved around on the floor of convention.

It wasn't so bad among the Ohioans; they, for the most part, knew those of us in the Ohio press corps. But, in general, there was a fire of rage against the media burning.

All in the 110 degree heat, which didn't help anybody's mood.

Someone in the media – I don't know who – printed up buttons saying It's All My Fault – I'm With The Media.

I pinned one to my laptop bag for the rest of the week.

And it hangs now on the bulletin board above my desk.

A reminder that no matter how bad things get, it can always be worse.