In a speech over the weekend, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on his party to hold future national conventions in early summer (as early as June), as opposed to August or September, as has been customary in recent cycles. Priebus’ remarks echo recommendations included in a report issued by the RNC in the wake of the 2012 elections. Although national parties are generally free to schedule their conventions at their discretion, a combination of practical and legal factors results in a relatively narrow window in which the conventions can reasonably be held.
On the front end of the calendar, parties must consider the timing and logistics of the presidential primary process. In recent election cycles, both of the major parties have taken steps to discourage “frontloading,” the practice by which states schedule ever-earlier contests in an attempt exert influence at an early stage of the nomination process. Party rules therefore require that all but a few states must schedule their primaries beyond March 1. In 2012, several states held contests as late as June.
Following the primaries, state parties typically require some time to elect at-large delegates, finalize their delegations, make travel arrangements, and address other logistical issues. In addition, convention committees often convene during the period following the primaries to prepare business for the convention, such as proposals for the party platform. Although national parties could theoretically attempt to expedite this timeline or encourage states to conclude their contests by an earlier date, the entirety of the nomination and delegate selection processes creates practical limits as to how early a convention can be held.
Another significant factor in the timing of the conventions, particularly in recent decades, has been the operation of campaign finance laws. In the past, when presidential candidates accepted public financing, the date of the national convention marked the time by which all funds for the primary election had to be raised and spent. Any funds spent following the convention would count against the candidate’s expenditure limits, which created an incentive to push the date of the conventions toward the fall.
Yet even when candidates decline to accept public financing, as both nominees did in the 2012 election, the date of the convention nevertheless impacts the way campaigns can use money. Prior to the convention, candidates may spend funds that contributors have designated for the general election only in particular circumstances, where the expenditure is for general election activity. For this reason, a convention scheduled too late could negatively impact candidates who have exhausted their primary election resources and are unable to begin freely using general election funds.
Additionally, conventions late in the cycle can present challenges for state election officials. For example, under federal law, each state is currently required to mail ballots to military and overseas voters at least 45 days prior to the date of the election. But states generally can’t prepare ballots until each party certifies its nominees for president and vice president (along with their designated electors to the beloved Electoral College), which doesn’t happen until the candidates are officially nominated by their respective conventions. Accordingly, a convention scheduled too late in the cycle can create major timing pressures for state officials charged with preparing, printing, and mailing tens of thousands of ballots by a September deadline.
There are, of course, other considerations that routinely impact the scheduling of national conventions—the Olympics (with which even the boldest presidential candidates dare not compete), political tradition (the incumbent’s party goes second), and even just plain old weather (which may deserve more consideration than it gets). Taken together, the matrix of factors results in scheduling pressures on both ends of the calendar. It’s therefore not particularly surprising that in the past sixty years, national party conventions have reliably landed within the same eight-week, mid-to-late summer timeframe.