How Do Political Convention Speakers Get Chosen, and Who Decides What They Say?

Melania Trump waves to the crowd at the end of her Monday, July 18, speech on the opening day of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Melania Trump waves to the crowd at the end of her Monday, July 18, speech on the opening day of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Viewers tuned in to this year's GOP national convention in Cleveland on Wednesday night got to witness unsuccessful presidential hopeful, Texas senator Ted Cruz, being booed off the stage after refusing to endorse nominee Donald Trump. It was a startling moment — in some ways, the political version of Kanye West storming the 2009 Video Music Awards stage to grab the mike from winner Taylor Swift and argue that Beyoncé's video was better.

We're not used to seeing this sort of thing happen at the political conventions. In recent decades, the floor fights and smoke-filled rooms of yore have morphed into tightly-scripted, carefully stage-managed four-day infomercials designed to motivate the party's base, provide exposure to promising up-and-coming young stars, and — most importantly — to tell a clear, appealing story about the nominee that will persuade undecided voters. That narrative generally is built over several days by an array of speakers selected to introduce the themes the presidential candidate will pull together in a speech on the final night.


"Typically, you take the collection of prominent figures, mostly from within the party, explains Josh Pasek, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, who has studied the convention speaking process. "They showcase the ideas of the party and define who your candidate is — and to a lesser degree, attack the opposing candidate."

Convention planning begins long before primary and caucus voters actually have determined who the presidential nominee will be. But Pasek explains that the speaker list generally isn't finalized until late in the process, by which time the party's national committee has turned over most of the control over the convention to the presumptive nominee's campaign.

"It's the nominee's convention," says another expert, Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "His campaign will have the final say."

Traditionally, some of the speakers, particularly on an early night, are young elected officials or candidates for office — fresh, appealing up-and-comers for whom a speaking slot is an audition on the national state, says Pasek. For example, in 2004 the Democrats picked an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama, who had just won a landslide victory in that state's U.S. Senate primary. Obama went on to dazzle the audience with his oratory, and raise his visibility in a way that helped make him a viable presidential candidate four years later. In 2012, similarly, the Republicans featured Nikki Haley, the first woman elected as governor in South Carolina.

Slots also go to the party's most prominent politicians, and to unsuccessful presidential contenders who generally try to rally their supporters around the winner, in part by reminding them of the common enemy from the other party. In 2012, for example, failed presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, the then- governor of Minnesota, spent most of his speech warning against the danger of giving four more years to Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, and then toward the end touted GOP nominee Mitt Romney as the man who could fix America's woes.

There are usually a handful of celebrities thrown into the mix to draw attention and add variety. And the nominee's spouse — Donald Trump's wife Melania, for example — also customarily gets a speaking slot. "It humanizes the candidate," Pasek says. "You want the person to be seen not just as a political figure, but as someone you could like and identify with."

This year, the humanizing-spouse speech didn't work out as planned, when most of the attention instead went to accusations that Mrs. Trump had lifted portions of her speech from Michelle Obama's 2008 text. That miscue, and Cruz's non-endorsement of Trump — whose text wasn't provided to party officials until shortly before he took the podium, according to the Washington Post — are among numerous miscues at the 2016 GOP convention, according to Pasek. Organizers also made a scheduling mistake that bumped one of the party's most prominent up-and-comers, Iowa senator Joni Ernst, out of TV prime time and left her speaking to a nearly empty arena.

Full Width
Retired Col. Eileen Collins, a former NASA astronaut, spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Pasek says that he expects the speakers at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia to hew more closely to the traditional guidelines, in part because in contrast to the flamboyant Trump, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is a more conventional politician with a veteran staff. The scheduled speakers include predictable choices such as President Obama and his wife Michelle. Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who will speak on Monday night, could provide some anxious moments for organizers, given his hard-fought race against Clinton for the nomination, and the aversion that some of his supporters still have toward the eventual winner. Even so, Sanders — who belatedly endorsed Clinton — isn't likely to steal the show the way that Cruz did.

"My sense is that he's enough on the ball and sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of a Trump Presidency," Pasek says. "If he 'goes firebrand' against Trump, that actually could be effective."

Ultimately, though, Sabato says that the most important orators on the convention lists are the two nominees themselves. "The only speech that actually lasts and matters is the nominee's on the final night," he says.