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Convention delegates have already started arriving in Cleveland for pre-convention meetings and activities, and soon they will descend on Philadelphia. Who are they and what do they believe?
From 1968 to 2008, CBS News surveyed each party’s convention delegates about their backgrounds, views, and values. The directors of the surveys Martin Plissner and Warren J. Mitofsky first wrote about them extensively in AEI’s Public Opinion magazine in 1980 and again in 1988. The original 1968 survey data drew attention to the underrepresentation of women, minorities, and young people at that year’s conventions, and was used by the Democratic Party’s Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection to enact reforms. Republicans also made efforts to improve representation.
The surveys also reveal some consistent differences between delegates and average party members. Unsurprisingly, convention delegates are activists. Unless you are deeply committed to the party, it’s unlikely you will put in the time and effort it takes to become a delegate. Because of their strong commitment to their party, delegates’ views are likely to be the purest expression of a party’s values.
Republican convention delegates, for example, are more skeptical about the federal government’s role than are Republican regulars and Americans in general. Democratic delegates are more enthusiastic about the federal government, more so than Democrats as a whole and Americans in general. Republican delegates tack further right ideologically than their party’s voters, and Democratic delegates tack further to the left.
On top of commitment, being a delegate requires money. Delegates are expected to cover the costs of attending the convention themselves, which can total thousands of dollars. For example, New Mexico Republicans were told to expect to spend at least $4,000 to participate in the Cleveland convention, and the estimated cost for California Democrats heading to Philadelphia was $4,250–$4,750. The high costs of attendance may explain why high-income earners make up a larger share of delegates than of voters. In 2008, 70% of Democratic delegates and 67% of Republican delegates reported earning $75,000 or more per year, compared to 27% of Democratic voters and 39% of Republican voters. In 2004, 61% of Democratic delegates and 58% of Republican delegates reported those earnings.
Around eight in ten delegates at both party conventions in 2008 had college degrees, compared to 30% of Democratic voters and 39% of Republican voters.
Around eight in ten delegates at both party conventions in 2008 had college degrees, compared to 30% of Democratic voters and 39% of Republican voters. The average age of both delegations was 54. Only 7% of Democratic delegates were under 30 years old, compared to 23% of Democratic voters. Three percent of Republican delegates were under 30, compared to 13% of Republican voters.
At this writing, it is unclear whether anyone will survey the delegates to the 2016 convention, but it is a safe bet that if they do, some of the characteristic differences described above between party regulars and convention delegates will still apply. For readers interested in an overview of two of the delegate polls, the earliest one from 1968 and the last one from 2008, please see the July/August issue of AEI’s Political Report.
Additional data from the CBS delegate surveys is available in the AEI Special Report: Delegates at National Conventions, 1968–2008.
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