Politics and Pomp — W&L's 2012 Mock Republican Convention
When critics say that today’s generation of college students doesn’t care about politics, Washington and Lee University senior Tricia King can only shake her head.
“All they have to do is watch what happens here in Lexington this coming weekend to see that’s not true,” said King, an English and politics double major from Norfolk, Va. “I heard that young people are too jaded, that we’re disconnected. And yet when we have our Mock Convention, you’ll see young people participating in droves.”
King’s passion for the quadrennial event is understandable. She and the event’s other tri-chairs — Zachary Wilkes, a senior from Farmersville, La., who’s the political chair, and Tucker Pribor, a senior from Madison, N.J, the personnel chair — have spent virtually their entire college careers preparing for 72 hours that will take place this weekend.
The 2012 Mock Republican Convention will not only draw a remarkable lineup of political luminaries to address the students and spectators in the University’s Warner Center, but it will also bring the climactic roll call of the states and the students’ prediction of the Republican presidential nominee on Saturday.
“Everyone focuses on our speakers and our prediction,” King said, “but the really important part of Mock Convention is that we have virtually every single student spending hours and hours of their time on a political event. People are passionate about it.”
Indeed, that passion goes way back. W&L held its first such event in 1908, when a Democratic Mock Convention nominated William Jennings Bryan on the first ballot. Over time, the exercise has grown in stature based, in part, on the accuracy of the prediction. Overall, the record is 18 correct predictions in 24 attempts, with only two errors since 1948. The prominence of the speakers and all the attendant hoopla have continued to gain attention over the years.
In a Mock Convention retrospective that he wrote in 1998, the late Washington and Lee politics professor William “Buck” Buchanan pointed to 1948 as the year the Mock Convention became a truly national media spectacle. “The first parade through the streets of Lexington had Virginia Military Institute and high school bands, floats and an elephant. Reporters and photographers from Life, Time, Associated Press and United Press and newsreel cameramen from Paramount and MGM poured into town,” Buchanan wrote. “A major effort by Publicity Director Lea Booth discovered the baby elephant at a circus playing in Kentucky and persuaded Mason-Dixon truck line to carry him and his trainer to Lexington.”
In ensuing years, the parade grew bigger and media coverage did, too, with legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow covering the 1952 convention for CBS. The death of a former vice president and U.S. senator, Alben Barkley, of Kentucky, during his 1956 keynote address made international headlines. Former President Harry Truman spoke at the 1960 event, which also featured Miss America, Lynda Mead, riding on the New Jersey float.
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William F. Connelly Jr., the John K. Boardman Professor of Politics at W&L, is the faculty adviser to Mock Convention. He is as impressed by this group of student leaders as any in the past.
“Hundreds of students put in endless hours. And for key Mock Convention leaders, their efforts amount to working a full-time job while also completing their responsibilities as full-time students,” said Connelly. “Every four years, I am proud of how effectively the Mock Convention leaders balance their responsibilities as students and as student leaders.
“I have been particularly impressed this year with the superb chemistry among the Executive Committee members, coupled with the substantial contributions by all the Steering Committee members,” Connelly added. “Mock Convention remains the most significant and broad-based example of student self-government and civic activism at W&L year after year. This broad-based effort involves our students in politics, political science, journalism, business administration, computer science, accounting, the study of history and more.”
The students are fully aware of the challenges that they are facing to stay relevant in the era of primary elections.
“Mock Con reinvents itself every four years,” said Wilkes, a politics major. “If you look through past cycles, Mock Con was so in tune with the Republican Party before 1972 that we were able decide who was going to win before anyone else in the nation. After 1972, everything changed. The public got very involved with primary elections, which caused our research methods to change fundamentally.”
King and Wilkes and others on their committee know that Mitt Romney will be the likely choice by the time the roll is called this coming Saturday. They’ve been watching the primaries closely, and the political team has made picks for each of those.
“At various points, we’ve thought the answer to the question of who will be the nominee is a foregone conclusion,” said King. “But then something happens to change that. It’s the nature of politics.”
The students have moved the convention dates earlier and earlier to try to make the prediction as challenging as possible. This year, the organizers thought they had chosen the best possible date by putting the convention between the original dates for the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.
“We read the Republican National Committee rules, which said that if anyone jumps ahead of those dates they would forfeit delegates,” said Wilkes. “Then the rules changed, the dates of primaries changed, and it stole some of our thunder. We’re hoping that, going forward, the national party will stick to its rules so we can decide when to hold our next convention.”
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The research began months ago and is painstaking. Wilkes said his political team looks at everything on a state-by-state basis — the candidates’ organizations, their fund-raising, the strength of the overall message.
“Take South Carolina,” Wilkes said. “With Romney coming off the New Hampshire win, we had been prepared to pick him early. But we waited because all of our fundamentals said that (Newt) Gingrich should win in South Carolina. We waited for a last-second Gingrich surge. Sure enough, it came seemingly out of nowhere, and everyone said it was positive momentum from the debates. But actually Gingrich lined up perfectly with the fundamentals of South Carolina. It was more of a restoring of order in a southern state.”
Earlier this year, one of the state coordinators, Thomas Meric, a senior economics and theater major, from New Orleans, took it upon himself to create a database with county-by-county information on every election since 1972 for both the Republican and Democratic primaries.
“When you pop in data from South Carolina alone, you get 372 pages of graphical data and detailed breakdowns of what has happened in those primaries,” Wilkes said. “So we knew what we needed to see in the way of county margins in South Carolina.”
Before the students make their prediction on Saturday, Feb. 11, two dozen speakers will have had their turn at the Warner Center podium. King and her team have been working for months to get the best speakers available, landing former presidential candidates Jon Huntsman, who was governor of Utah and U.S. ambassador to China, and businessman Herman Cain, just days before the convention.
“When Zach, Tucker and I started this process, it was just the three of us for a while,” said King. “We had a kind of crazy wish list for speakers, and we are almost spot on.”
In addition to Huntsman, the list includes former governors Mike Huckabee, of Arkansas, and Haley Barbour, of Mississippi; current Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell; House Majority Leader and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor; former Sen. Fred Thompson, of Tennessee; and former Rep. J.C. Watts, of Oklahoma. It’s an impressive list, despite unexpected competition.
“We are competing with C-PAC 2012,” said King, referring to the Conservative Political Action Committee that is meeting in Washington the same weekend. “I guess they thought it would be cool to schedule their annual conference the same weekend as our convention, but we’re still doing OK.”
For King and her fellow members of the steering committee, the hours upon hours of work will be rewarded when the balloons fall after the announcement of the 2012 nominee on Saturday.
“The students receive neither pay nor academic credit for their efforts,” said Connelly. “But they uphold the tradition and honor of W&L by working assiduously to get the prediction right — and to produce a splendid political spectacle of a convention.”
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Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs