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Change and Continuity for Women
at the 1996 Republican and Democratic Conventions

by Jo Freeman

Published in off our backs, January 1997, pp. 14-23.

Last August I went to my sixth Republican and ninth Democratic conventions. The biggest news from these quadrennial political confabs, in the sense of something new, was that for the first time in decades there was no news.
Fifteen thousand reporters from all over the world struggled to find real stories worth reporting, while several hundred politicians and their staffs did their best to create illusions. After the third day of the Republican convention Ted Koppel of "Nightline" packed up and left in disgust saying there was no news.
The third day of the Democratic convention was marked by gossip and speculation over the resignation of President Clinton's advisor Dick Morris for letting a prostitute know some inside information, a nonevent whose timing was so transparent that many thought it was set up by the opposition as a dirty trick. This got headlines only because there was so little at the Democratic convention to compete for news space.
Since there was little "news" this is a good opportunity to look back over the last twenty to thirty years and see what has and has not changed for women in the major parties, as reflected at their national conventions.
The most obvious change is that there are a lot more women present in both parties, as delegates, candidates, office holders, and staff and also at the conventions as reporters. Do these greater numbers mean women have more influence? They appear to on the surface. The campaigns and the parties overtly catered to women. But in the center, where the main decisions are made, the influence of women apart from those with personal relationships to the candidates and chief decision makers is not obvious, and may not be there at all. Nor is there evidence that those women with influence are acting to further the feminist agenda.

The Delegates

During the 1950s and 1960s the proportion of delegates who were female hovered between fifteen to seventeen percent for the Republicans and eleven to fourteen percent for the Democrats. In 1996 women were half of the Democratic convention delegates -- a requirement since 1979. Although the Republican Party has no such rule -- it doesn't believe in quotas except on the convention committees -- surveys by news organizations concluded that 34 percent of the delegates to the 1996 convention were women. One third female has been typical since 1976, except in those years in which the incumbent is renominated when a special effort is made to select women delegates. Women were 48 percent of the delegates in 1984 and 42 percent in 1992.
The female increase is a direct consequence of the emergence of the women's movement in the late 1960s. The National Women's Political Caucus, founded in 1972, made a particular effort to elect women as delegates in the 1970s, through its Republican and Democratic Women's Task Forces. It no longer does this, but it no longer needs to. During these same years, the percent of state legislators who were female went from four to twenty percent; that of Members of Congress from three to ten percent; and of statewide elective offices from negligible to twenty five percent.
The changes could be seen in the delegates' responses to pollsters questions about their political experience. CBS found that 63% of the Democratic women currently hold a party office and 23% hold a public office compared to 53% and 30% of Democratic men. Among Republican delegates, 60% of both sexes hold a party office, while one fifth of the women and one quarter of the men are public officials.
The role of convention delegates has declined as the number of women has increased. The national nominating conventions are no longer deliberative bodies whose job is to select each party's slate for the Presidency. The last time there was more than one ballot was in 1952. The last time the outcome was not clearly known well before the convention began was probably in 1960.
Primary elections, which proliferated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, have displaced conventions as the means by which the major parties select their candidates. Even in 1976 -- the last time there was a close contest at the convention itself -- no one gave Ronald Reagan a serious chance of denying President Ford renomination after the end of the primary season. Thus delegate distribution is more symbolic than substantive.
Not surprisingly, the Associated Press canvass revealed that the 4,320 Democrats are demographically more diverse than the 1,990 Republican delegates, but similar in age, education and income.1



46 yrs. 1 mo.
46 yrs. 6 mos.

Several polls were done by different news organizations of samples of the delegates to both conventions. I obtained those done for CBS, ABC and NBC. CBS gave me raw data showing responses by sex for each question. An ABC release included separate responses by sex for one question on abortion. There were few notable sex differences in the CBS poll. But there were striking differences between Democratic and Republican delegates.
The delegates of neither party mirror the average American voter, but the Republican delegates came a bit closer to doing so. The ABC pollster calculated that when responses to all issue questions were averaged, the Democrats differed by 33 percentage points and the Republicans by only 25 from the views of the average voter.
While on most issues the average voters' views are between the two, this is not true of all. More voters support term limits (73%) than do Republican delegates (54%) or Democrats (18%). Voters also support school prayer, a freeze on legal immigration and think a new political party is needed more than either party's delegates. The views of voters and Republican delegates coincide most closely on the desire for a balanced budget amendment (83% to 88%) and the death penalty (77% to 88%). Voters and Democratic delegates agree most on banning assault weapons (73% to 93%) and a belief that corporations are too powerful (both 71%).2 The ABC poll showed that on issues high on the feminist agenda, the Democrats are supportive but the average voter and the Republicans are not.

Percent strongly supporting: Dem. dels. voters Rep. dels.
Keep legal abortion 88 56 24
Constitutional abortion ban 1 26 36
welfare cutoff after 5 years 38 74 88
affirmative action 82 47 11
spousal benefits for gays 61 37 9

Although the CBS poll found few differences in the opinions of women and men within each party, overall, women were more liberal than men among the Democrats and less conservative among the Republicans. Only one question evoked at least a 10% difference in both parties: 10% more men than women believe the government should do more to promote traditional values.
Among Democrats, 12% more women than men support NAFTA, 14% more women believe gays need anti-discrimination laws and 20% more women believe abortion should be a woman's choice in all cases.
Among Republicans, 14% more men than women have a favorable opinion of the religious right, while 9% more women think it has too much influence in the Republican Party. Consistent with this, 8%, 9% and 10% more men have a favorable opinion of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Reed, respectively. Men are 12% more likely to oppose a ban on assault weapons, and 14% more are members of the National Rifle Association.

Platform and Podium

For many years the major role of each convention has been to kick off each party's campaign with four days of media savvy infomercial paid for by the taxpayers -- $12.3 million for each major party's convention -- and several corporate interests such as the three phone companies which supplied the press filing rooms and fed the press.3
These infomercials are somewhat revealing of the party's media strategy, but they don't say a great deal about what the party would actually try to achieve if its candidates were elected. For the latter the platforms are still a better mirror, a window through which one can see each party's internal dynamics at work.
If one compares the podium and platform messages of both parties with special regard to issues of concern to feminists, one sees much greater differences between the platforms than the portraits projected from the podium. For the TV audience each party tried to co-opt the other's image. The Republicans pretended to be diverse and the Democrats to be for family values. This was a change from 1992 when the podium as well as the Platform illuminated party differences; Republican speakers emphasized family values and the Democrats a woman's right to choose abortion when needed.
For the few party faithful who actually read the platforms, and for the interest groups which use them to flex their political muscles, their meaning is more complex. Indeed this year's Republican Party nominee said he hadn't read his party's platform and wasn't bound by it while the Democratic Party nominee bragged that he helped draft that of his party.
Party platforms reflect both a party's core concerns and its current influencials, leading to many inconsistencies. For example, the 1996 Republican Party Platform says "all American children should expect to ... learn the three R's through proven methods; learn the nation's history and democratic values and study the classics of western civilization;..." while advocating "quality education for all through programs of parental choice among public, private, and religious schools. That includes the option of home schooling,..." One goal is not compatible with the other, especially when "the federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the work place."
This year the Democrats jumped on the "less is more" bandwagon, advocating "a smaller, more effective, more efficient, less bureaucratic government that reflects our time-honored values" while still pointing out that "government investment in technology is responsible for the computer, for jet aircraft, and for the Internet -- no investments have ever paid off better, in jobs, in opportunity, or in growth." The same party that confesses that "the American people do not want big government solutions" also intends to "protect our environment but ... not trap business in a tangle of red tape."
While both platforms are initially drafted by staff responsive to the concerns of the winning candidate, the Republican process is a little more open and more malleable. Rule 17 of the Republican Party requires that each delegation select one man and one woman from among their midst for each convention committee (except for three territories who only get one person each). The decentralized selection process means the Committee members don't always agree with the candidate and can't always be counted on to submerge their personal views. The Platform Committee meets the week before the convention in the convention city, where several subcommittees traditionally hear testimony and then amend the prepared draft before sending it to the full Platform Committee for approval. While most Platform preparation takes place behind the scenes, enough occurs in public view to illuminate some prominent political currents in the party.
The Democratic Party Platform Committee does not have subcommittees. Instead Rule VII of "The Call for the 1996 Democratic National Convention" mandates a small Drafting Committee chosen by the Chair of the DNC. Members of the Platform Committee are selected by the state delegations, but only from persons nominated by the Presidential candidates, who are allocated slots on the convention committees consistent with their delegate strength. Unlike the Republicans, Committee members do not have to be delegates. By limiting Committee members to persons selected by Presidential candidates with delegates, the Platform process insures that only those views can be heard which are championed by a Presidential candidate with some support in the primaries. At one time an organized grassroots group could secure a voice on the Platform Committee by showing strength in a few states. Now being heard, let alone actually influencing the Platform, requires agreement from a strong candidate as well.
While the Democratic Charter requires equal division by sex on all party bodies, this applies to the convention committees as a whole, not to each one. In 1996 only 45 percent of the Drafting and Platform Committee members were women. Both men and women were mostly elected and appointed officials. The two committees meet weeks before the convention in other cities, making it harder for outsiders to watch. Usually written testimony is submitted beforehand and sometimes there are hearings. Press coverage of the Democratic process is fragmented and frequently by junior reporters with little knowledge of what has happened before. Press coverage of the Republican Platform process is more extensive and more likely to highlight conflicts and fault lines.


The Republican Party Platform

The Republicans tried to limit their exposure this year by eliminating the hearings and reducing the public Platform process from four days to three. In the past pro-choice Republicans have been able to argue their cause on the first day of Platform week, and sometimes at hearings held earlier in other cities. Though they have often been subject to harassing questions -- in 1984 they were quizzed about Geraldine Ferraro's finances -- their testimony garnered some publicity and was part of the official proceedings. Because hearings were not held in 1996, the pro-choice Republicans present at Platform meeting were limited to informal press conferences and lobbying; they had no platform at the Platform Committee.
The script was much the same as in 1992, though there were some cast changes. On the pro-choice side was Republicans for Choice, founded by Ann Stone in 1989 as a fundraising PAC for Republican candidates; the NWPC's Republican Women's Task Force, the minuscule home of Republican feminists (who no longer call themselves feminists in public); the Republican Coalition for Choice, now headed by Sue Cullman; the W.I.S.H. (Women in Senate and House) List, a PAC funding pro-choice women candidates, and representatives from a few nonpartisan groups such as Planned Parenthood and Catholics for a Free Choice.
Separately and collectively these groups sponsored several events during convention week, both freebies and fundraisers. As in the past, they made no effort to organize delegates, or even identify the pro-choice members of the Platform committee. Pro-choice statements and actions by Platform Committee members were purely spontaneous and unco-ordinated.
The pro-life activities were run by what Phyllis Schlafly named the "fearsome foursome". They were herself, as head of the Republican National Coalition for Life; Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition; Bay Buchanan, sister of Pat; and Gary Bauer, who heads his own think tank called the Family Research Council. It was this group which signed off on the final language on abortion after extensive negotiations with the Dole campaign. The pro-choicers weren't even consulted. As Sue Cullman said in one of the many mini-press conferences that took place in the halls, "We are excluded, unwanted, untolerated and unhappy."
Although Republican pro-choicers were present, demanding that the Party "Yank the Plank" on abortion from the Platform, it would be stretching it to call their efforts a wake for woman's right to choose. The horse they were beating has been dead for so long it's almost decomposed. But when pro-choice California Governor Pete Wilson saw an opportunity to posture to the press, by implying more action than he could produce, he created the illusion that a floor fight over removal of the plank was a possibility. It wasn't. There was no fire and very little smoke.
There would have been no smoke if Dole had not fanned the flames by announcing in June that a "tolerance" clause would be put into the platform. Senate staffer Bill Gribbin, who has prepared the working draft of every Republican platform since 1984, inserted language saying that Republicans have "deeply held and sometimes differing views on issues like abortion, capital punishment, term limits and trade. We view this diversity of views as a source of strength, not as a sign of weakness, and we welcome into our ranks all Americans who may hold differing policies on these and other issues. Recognizing that tolerance is a virtue, we are committed to resolving our differences in a spirit of civility, hope, and mutual respect."
According to Bay Buchanan, this "energized the pro-choicers" because it "gave them hope" that they weren't pariahs in the party. It also brought the pro-lifers together for weekly strategy meetings around three goals: the language on abortion must be the same as in 1992, any mention of "tolerance" must not specify abortion and must be distant from the section on life, and Dole's running mate must be pro-life. They won all three.
The draft's abortion language was not identical to that in the 1992 Platform. The differences were minor, but the "fearsome foursome" wanted none. The 1992 language was restored by the Subcommittee on Individual Rights and Personal Safety to read: "The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children."
The fate of "tolerance" was a hot topic in the aisles during the first day of Platform week while the subcommittee skipped that section to discuss everything else. During long recesses fourteen pro-life subcommittee members held back room discussions with the pro-life four, particularly Reed and Schlafly, and the Dole campaign. Reed had initially endorsed the agreement between Dole and Platform Committee Chairman Henry Hyde to include a "tolerance" plank, but backed away when his fervently pro-life members objected.
Negotiating for Dole was his convention co-ordinator Paul Manafort, Bill Gribbin and former Minnesota Congressman Vin Webber. Agreement was reached too late Monday evening to make the TV news casts, to the relief of the Dole campaign. After Kay James of Virginia, one of the few high level African Americans in the Bush Administration and one of three on the Platform Committee, read the proposed amendment to the Subcommittee at 6:00 p.m. PDT it was unanimously affirmed by a voice vote. "Tolerance" was struck from the plank as was the list of issues on which party members had different views. Instead it says:
"We are the party of the open door. As we approach the start of a new century, the Republican Party is more dedicated than ever to strengthening the social, cultural, and political ties that bind us together as a free people, the greatest force for good the world has ever seen. While our party remains steadfast in its commitment to advancing its historic principles and ideals, we also recognize that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing views. We view this diversity of views as a source of strength, not as a sign of weakness, and we welcome into our ranks all Americans who may hold differing positions. We are committed to resolving our differences in a spirit of civility, hope, and mutual respect."
The "right to life" language is several paragraphs further down. As the Subcommittee met into the evening, Walter Freed of Vermont moved to delete it. In exit polls during the presidential primary season, 57 percent of Republican voters said abortion should not be part of the party's platform. Roughly half of the delegates polled agreed.4 But when Freed's motion was voted on, only 4 of 25 Subcommittee members were willing to remove it. The other three were Wally Ulrich (WY), Betsy Dalrymple (ND) and Gayl Simonds-Pyatt (IL). Their defeat was met by resounding applause.
When the full Platform Committee met the following day, more attempts were made to strike the abortion clause, to reinstate "tolerance" language, or at least to "welcome individuals on either side of the abortion issue". All failed overwhelmingly by voice or standing votes. There were no roll calls or even hand counts.
The Dole campaign had no interest in a floor fight, on this or any other issue, even though the polls showed 55% of the delegates and 68% of all Republicans supported a tolerance statement.5 While it suffered some from press reports of capitulation to the Christian Coalition, the campaign counted on none of the voters actually reading the Platform. In its own short synopsis of the Platform the "principle of tolerance" dominates the four line summary of the abortion plank.
Knowledgeable people on both sides estimated that of the 107 Platform Committee members, a dozen at most were "hard core pro-choicers", another 20 to 25 supported a woman's right to choose, but not passionately enough to be counted, 40 to 45 were "hard core pro-lifers", and the rest, mostly elected officials, were also pro-life. Although roughly one-third of the Platform Committee members did not like the strong pro-life language, no one familiar with Republican Party politics thought that 27 would sign a minority report so there could be a floor fight.6
If the unthinkable had happened, the Christian Coalition was ready. Ralph Reed claimed that 487 of the 1990 Republican delegates were members of his organization and 1100 were strongly pro-life. He said "we spent a ton of money" to bring members to San Diego and set up a floor operation. The CC paid for two million pieces of mail to its membership and other pro-lifers urging them to become delegates or participate in their state party's delegate selection process. Reed said he had a majority of delegates in twelve to eighteen states, including 25 out of 168 California delegates and a majority of those from Massachusetts, even though both states have pro-choice Republican governors. If necessary, Reed said, the CC could mobilize 102 floor whips, 40 runners, and 25 communications hubs on the convention floor.
Reed's estimates of his delegate support did not coincide with those of the delegate polls. CBS reported that 11% of Republican delegates were members of the Christian Coalition. However, 21% considered themselves part of the "religious right" and 31% were evangelical Christians. A surprising 1% of Democratic delegates said they were part of the "religious right"; 16% were evangelical Christians. An August 1996 survey of all voters found 15% who claimed to be part of the religious right, and 27% who were evangelical Christians.
The Republican delegates were strongly pro-life; 72% opposed legal abortion. National surveys reveal only minor sex differences in opinion on abortion, but there was a sex difference among the delegates. ABC reported:

Percent saying
abortion should be:
legal illegal
Female Republican delegates 32 60
Male Republican delegates 12 79
All women 55 42
All men 57 40

  The Subcommittee which wrote the abortion plank had the most members, the largest room and the most attention, but sex and gender issues were addressed by four of six subcommittees. The Subcommittee on Building A Better America declared we "will not fund organizations involved in abortion." The Families Subcommittee emphasized that "Abstinence education in the home will lead to less need for birth control services and fewer abortions" and "oppose[d] school-based clinics, which provide referrals, counseling, and related services for contraception and abortion." School-based clinics stimulated a lengthy debate between those who feared anyone but parents talking to their children about sex, and two physicians who were worried about "kids who were failed by schools and parents". The parents had more votes.
The conservatives on this Subcommittee did not always get their way. Two-thirds voted in language to repeal no-fault divorce laws "to foster the stability of the home and protect the economic rights of innocent parties", but a majority of the full Committee changed it back to merely "review divorce laws".
Despite the dominance of "family values", anti-feminist conservatives on the Platform Committee, there were issues on which thirty years of feminism had clearly raised some consciousness. The most illuminating debate was that on women in the military, which most of the press missed because they were covering Wilson's press conference. The draft language, unchanged by the 13 members of the Foreign Policy Subcommittee, said "We support the advancement of women in the military and call for restoration of their former exemption from combat and near-combat assignments." When the full Committee came to this section, Becky Constantino (WY) moved to strike everything after "military." She had served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) and learned from that experience that women in today's volunteer army did not want to be exempted from the combat assignments necessary to a successful military career.
What followed was a lengthy debate in which experience played a major role and ideology was minimal. Those favoring the amendment emphasized that military women wanted and deserved equal opportunity. Many had daughters or other female relatives in the military; others were impressed with women's near-combat service in Desert Storm. Several made the point that in today's police actions the line between combat and non-combat is not clear; combat restrictions only protected women from credit for the danger they faced, not the risk of harm.
Bob Weinholzer of Minnesota said that twenty years ago he opposed letting women into the police and fire departments, but they had done such a good job in those occupations that he no longer believed that women's opportunities should be limited. Joyce Terhes of Maryland told the Platform Committee "I've worked to break the glass ceiling and get women into non-traditional jobs." Cindy Phillips of Mississippi said "We must get away from distinguishing between the sexes. We'd be derelict in our duty if we didn't support this amendment." According to Gary Porter of North Dakota, while "it is wrong to send anybody into combat, to deny women the opportunity for combat is also wrong. We have to show we believe in them. We have to show we are a country of equal opportunity. These women want to defend our country."
Those opposing the amendment did not question women's record in the military, but the desirability of "equal opportunity to die on the front lines". Women delegates from Louisiana and Minnesota said that women and men serving together promotes promiscuity. Deborah Banik of South Dakota cited pregnancies in our Bosnia forces as a reason to keep women out of combat zones. Bunny Chambers of Oklahoma and JoAnn Davidson of Ohio both asserted that "sending mothers into combat sends the wrong cultural message" while Betty Lou Martin of Texas insisted that "I'd rather have an army of men protecting me than an army of women." Several cited "military readiness" as the issue, but without explaining how women detracted from this. The standing vote showed 61 favored the amendment and 38 opposed.
This was not the end. Since many had distinguished between ground combat and that of the naval and air forces, and others had pointed out that no one was drafted any more, a new amendment proposed that: "We reaffirm our support for the exemption of women from ground combat units and are concerned about the current policy of involuntarily assigning women to combat or near-combat units." After more discussion this one passed 52 to 41. Although the debate on both amendments signified that a substantial number of conservatives have absorbed the ideas advanced by radical feminists three decades ago, a critical swing vote wasn't quite ready for the downside of equal opportunity.

The Democratic Party Platform

On August 5, while press attention was focused on the Republican Party's Subcommittee deliberations in San Diego, the 186 members of the Democratic Party Platform Committee met in Pittsburgh where it took members only three hours to ratify the staff draft previously reviewed by the 17 member Drafting Committee that had met in Kansas City on July 11-12.
Their real deliberation was done in a six hour session the night before, out of view of the press. Proposed changes were sent to Washington for review; only those OKed were confirmed by the Platform Committee the next day. One proposal on how to treat school teachers "who don't measure up" required a vote; it was defeated when disapproved by the Clinton-Gore campaign.7

The only conflict came from two outsiders who interrupted the meeting to shout out their objections to the welfare bill. No changes were made at the convention, nor were there any threats to do so.
At the request of several pro-life Democratic Congressmen led by Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio, the Democrats did what Dole wanted to do: express tolerance for opposing views on abortion in their Platform. In July, staff drafters put into the middle of the section which declares that "Choice" is a "fundamental constitutional liberty" the qualification: "The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party."
  NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), the most prominent pro-choice group, accepted this clause without public protest. When asked about it, NARAL President Kate Michelman lauded the Democratic Party "in direct and stark contrast to the Republican Party platform, which would make abortions illegal for most women in this country and would endanger their lives as a result." She addressed the convention Tuesday afternoon when the Platform was formally presented, telling the few hundred delegates who attended this untelevised session that "the message from the Republican party platform is ... one of disdain and mistrust... which ... would substitute government for a woman's conscience."
As in the Republican Platform, sex and gender issues were pervasive. In different sections the Democrats proclaimed their support for women's health, protection of women's pension rights, support for women-owned businesses, opposition to domestic violence, demanded a crack-down on deadbeat parents, enforcement of statutory rape laws, adequate pay for women (and men) in uniform, touted the Family and Medical Leave Act, and opposed discrimination on the basis of "race, gender .... and sexual orientation".
With an invisible nod to the shaky center, the party also wanted to reform affirmative action, put families first, and stand up for parents. On welfare reform, the Democrats mostly attacked the Republicans for wanting to do more damage than was done. Welfare reform was the one issue about which I heard lots of grumbling at the convention. But the grumbling was whispered; having seen what the Republicans did in the Congress, no one complained too loudly about the White House. Only 28% of Democratic delegates told the CBS poll that Clinton did "the wrong thing" in signing the welfare bill.
The 1996 Democratic Party Platform reveals more about the Clinton campaign's re-election strategy than it does about intra party struggles for influence since there was no opportunity for these to occur. The meeting dates and location of the July 10 hearing before the Drafting Committee were only announced a week before, though those unable to present their proposals personally could submit written statements until July 31.
During the two day review that followed, the Drafting Committee took no formal votes, but merely suggested changes to the Committee staff. Changes were made by staff until the draft was sent to the full Platform Committee in late July, and a few more before its final ratification on August 5. Even more than in 1992, the 1996 Democratic Party Platform was created by and for the Clinton campaign; any concessions by it to important persons or interest groups were made in private.8
The drafting process of the 1996 Platform was so closed that the staff left out the Equal Rights Amendment, even though one of the drafters was a woman (but not a feminist). This mistake passed through the Drafting Committee, with 8 women of 17 members, and was not caught until August when Platform Committee CoChair Barbara Kennelly read the draft Platform and put it back in.
The day the Platform Committee met in Pittsburgh (Aug. 5) Democratic Deputy Campaign Manager Ann Lewis justified the omission to the press in San Diego by explaining that the Democratic Party had decided to leave out old issues on which its position was clear. In reality the omission happened because there was little public discussion with anyone who had the power to make decisions. Instead DNC National Chairman Don Fowler crowed that "The tables are reversed this year. We're enjoying unity. They are miserable in their divisions."


Protests at the conventions have been popular at least since 1964, when the civil rights movement picketed the Republicans in San Francisco and held a vigil in front of the Democratic meeting hall in Atlantic City, NJ. Protests peaked in 1968 and 1972; since then they have become institutionalized, routinized, and small.
In 1972 the Miami police fenced off a protest area a few blocks from the convention hall which was not visible to anyone not looking for it. That tactic has been followed by convention cities ever since.
The "pens" at San Diego and Chicago were easier to find than usual; Chicago even had a second area in Grant Park where most of the 1968 action took place. Each city provided a stage and sound system and allocated time slots to any group requesting one, first-come or by lottery.
The protest schedule was publicized in the local press. I spent little time at the protest sites, and the demonstrations I saw were minuscule. The Democrats have traditionally attracted larger and more vehement protests, but not this year. The larger crowds I saw in the San Diego may indicate more protestors in southern California, or more dismay.
For feminists, the issue once again was abortion. The troops in both cities, mostly NOW members, were organized by Alice Cohen of the Feminist Majority Fund (FMF), founded and headed by Ellie Smeal after she stepped down from the Presidency of the National Organization for Women.
A dozen feminists picketed the Republican Platform meeting daily in competition with pro-lifers who displayed giant color photos of aborted fetuses in the plaza outside the meeting hall where the platform deliberations were taking place. Pro-choice Republicans walked by the pro-choice demonstrators without so much as a nod. They clearly lived in different universes.
  NOW President Patricia Ireland led a small march in San Diego against the mis-named Civil Rights Initiative, but not in Chicago. There were feminist demonstrations in Chicago, but not against the Democratic Party. Instead FMF and Operation Rescue (OR) faced off against each other in both cities.
OR began its "rescues" at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, when a couple hundred people were arrested for blockading clinics that performed abortions. The 1992 Republican convention brought out a few hundred more on both sides, though not much happened in New York where the Democrats met.
By 1996 OR's forces had attenuated, but still had an impact. In San Diego most abortion clinics went on vacation while the Republicans were in town, to avoid being blockaded. Nonetheless, OR met every day at 7:00 a.m to lead their supporters to different demonstrations, which were not announced in advance. Some days they tried to block the few clinics still open, some days they picketed events such as the WISH LIST breakfast.
Thursday morning I joined their car caravan. When we arrived at a clinic near San Diego State University, half the cars disgorged people with NOW pro-choice signs, who beat OR to the clinic doors. When OR identified an unguarded companion clinic a block away it directed a couple dozen people to sit in front of the doors. After the police came, two OR men negotiated their departure while Rev. Flip Benham preached to the choir.
A chat with one OR member, who was not blocking the door and who did not identify himself, revealed that criminal prosecutions have decimated their ranks. He said the 1994 federal FACE Act (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) has made a federal felony of misdemeanor trespassing, creating the possibility of years in jail for each offense. The time and money involved defending those arrested even on state charges has drained OR's resources; some of their most active members have been enjoined by federal courts. Thus while they remain dedicated to the unborn, he said, they try to avoid arrests.
After lengthy discussions, the police called the property manager to ask the blockaders to leave and then threatened to arrest those who didn't. Everyone got up and left.


While both parties have undergone significant changes in the last thirty years, the Democratic Party remains a pluralistic party and the Republican Party an homogenous one. Structurally, the Democrats have "multiple power centers which compete for membership support in order to make demands on, as well as determine, the leaders. The Republicans are a unitary party in which great deference is paid to the leadership, activists are expected to be 'good soldiers', and competing loyalties are frowned upon."9

The primary change in the Democrats has been in the types of groups represented and the way in which they exercise power. There has been a shift from purely geographic representation through the state and local parties to demographic representation, at least on the national level. Several demographic caucuses not only meet at the quadrennial conventions, but have DNC staff and are a presence at national headquarters.
At the 1996 convention there were daily meetings of women, African Americans, Hispanics and Lesbian/Gays, a couple meetings of Asians, the Disabled, Seniors and Youth. The presence of organized labor, the oldest and most powerful of the Democratic Party's constituency groups, was pervasive. The "Union Events Master Calendar" was six pages. CBS reported that 11% of the Democratic delegates were members of the National Education Association and another 24% were members of other unions, "making this the largest proportion of union members at any Democratic convention."
The first three groups met at the same time every morning, though only the women's caucus was listed on the official Convention Event Schedule. While these meetings were open to anyone, their simultaneity and lack of publicity contributed to homogeneity. Time and location fostered an exclusive alliance to one group and undermined the sharing of information and views among people with multiple identities or those who wanted to enhance their understanding by going to more than one caucus.
I attended three meetings of the women's caucus, three of the L&G, sat in on part of the African American caucus a couple times, and sampled the Hispanic meetings. All of these met in the headquarters hotel, so they had proximity of place as well as time. The women's caucus had the largest room and the most attendees, followed by the AA, Hispanic, and L&G caucuses. Attendance ranged from two thousand to two hundred, depending on the caucus and the main speaker for the day. The other caucuses met in other places, and I couldn't get to them.
Faced with choosing between the women's caucus and those of their ethnic groups, virtually all African American and Hispanic women chose the latter. Thus the women attending the women's caucus were mostly white even though the women running it were not. Women were well represented in the audience of the African American and Hispanic meetings I observed. While the Lesbian and Gay caucus met each afternoon there was little overlap in attendance between it and the morning caucuses; 90% of those I saw were white men. Women were better represented among L&G speakers.
The L&G caucus was the only one in which I heard any floor discussion or any demands; participants passed a motion to ask Clinton to mention them in his acceptance speech. At the other caucuses party leaders and notables preached to the choir, sometimes to give information, but mostly to mobilize their energy for the forthcoming campaign. Thick packets were given out listing Clinton's past actions and promises for the future tailored to each constituency.
  While in earlier years these caucus meetings provided a means for party leaders to listen to their troops, now they are just one more rally. Although the importance of groups remains far greater in the Democratic than in the Republican party, the alteration of caucus meetings from forums to rallies indicates some convergence of style if not structure. Delegates and the party faithful no longer come to talk; they just come to listen.
Organized groups traditionally have been less important in the Republican Party. Without a presidential candidate or major public official to voice one's concerns and legitimate one's views, it is hard to be heard in national party affairs. Even in 1976, when the Republican Women's Task Force could operate within the party, it did so through the Ford campaign and did not have separate meetings for women.
Phyllis Schlafly holds an event at every Republican convention, but it is a fundraiser at a rented facility for her current organizational persona, not a forum in a meeting hall provided by the Party. In 1996, her Republican National Coalition for Life held a luncheon at San Diego's Sea World. The Christian Coalition also holds separate events, not party caucuses. The only difference between its massive prayer meeting in Balboa Park and its much smaller one in Chicago's Field Museum was size and the presence of some Republican elected officials at the former. Even Pat Buchanan, who did run and win delegates, had to rent space and charge money so his followers could hear him and Ollie North tell them why they shouldn't form a third party.
The Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of Republican clubs for homosexuals, was further removed from the official party than Buchanan. Starting with three California clubs in 1980s, LCR became national in 1990. In 1996 there were 54 Log Cabin clubs in 32 states.
Almost 200 gays and lesbians came to its sixth national convention in San Diego on August 9-11. At the one plenary I went to there were roughly 80 white men, five white women, three black men, one black woman, and two Asian women, which was similar to the ethnic and sex composition at the Democratic L&G caucus. Indeed most striking difference between the LCRs and the L&G caucus was dress; LCRs had the clean-cut professional look typical of Republicans while the Democrats were much more diverse.
At the LCR plenary each state gave a report on club growth and named the local Republican office holders willing to appoint gays to important positions. Receptivity varies enormously by state. Elected Republicans in some states, especially California, New York and Massachusetts, have been responsive to gay concerns. In other places, like Texas, gays are still pariahs. After the convention, the LCR held a prayer breakfast to honor the three openly gay delegates to the Republican Party convention. There were two such delegates in 1992.
Because conservative Christians condemn homosexuality as immoral, the LCRs have had some trouble being heard in the Republican Party. Dole returned a check sent by the LCR to his campaign. Congressman Steve Gunderson, the one openly gay Republican in the 104th Congress, did not run for re-election after Newt Gingrich told him that the Republican right was raising major money for a campaign to defeat him. His singular role in Congress may be taken over by Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who was "outed" last July but was nonetheless reelected in November.
Like the Log Cabin Republicans, the Christian Coalition has acted more like a Democratic Party constituency group than a typical Republican one. While it was born on the coattails of a candidate -- Pat Robertson's 1988 campaign for President -- it has sustained its place through grassroots organizing and fundraising. This is an anomalous strategy within the Republican Party, as supporting a winning candidate is the normal route to influence.
The CC controls 15 to 20 state Republican Parties (depending on who is counting), and is influential in many more. Unlike traditional Republican bodies, it does not honor tradition or position without ideological agreement. Mary Louise Smith, the only woman Chairman of the RNC (1975-76), told everyone that the CC had such tight control of the Republican Party in her home state of Iowa that she could not be elected a delegate; she came to the 1996 convention as a guest.
The CC still has the missionary drive of a social movement rather than the more cooperative style of an institutionalized interest group. Its adherents are willing to attend lengthy local meetings to elect delegates and once at the convention are willing to vote as directed. They also vote in primaries more than "moderates." Roughly 35 percent of Republican voters tell pollsters that they are part of the "religious right."
The CC's clout was not lost on Bob Dole when three religious right Republicans won Senatorial primaries held the week before the convention in Georgia, Kansas and Michigan. Nor was it lost on pro-choice Dolly Madison McKenna of Texas, who was defeated in two Republican primaries for Congress. After the Court ordered a multi-candidate general election in new districts in 1996, she was one of two candidates certified for a December run-off. The other, a Democrat, won after pro-life Republicans told their followers to cast blank ballots rather than vote for either pro-choice candidate.
Their members' determination gives the CC a veto over any potential Republican nominee, particularly anyone who is not pro-life. But it also means they are not quite the "good soldiers" more typical of Republican partisans. While Executive Director Ralph Reed committed himself to Dole early in the year, many CC members at the convention weren't sure they would vote for him if he did not speak out on their issues. A missionary drive cannot last forever, but before the energy dissipates the CC may well take over most of the Republican Party.
In its attempt to do this, the CC is aided by the Democrats, who would much rather elect their own to public office than moderate Republicans. Because there is no Party tradition of organized groups, and because moderate Republicans are either unable or unwilling to appeal to the grassroots, once they lose office, they lose power and voice within the party. Caught between primary challenges by the radical right, who can mobilize voters and money greater than their presence in the electorate of any given district, and Democratic challengers in the general election, moderate Republicans are being slowly eliminated from the Republican Party.
Even those who can get elected have little sway at the national convention. The moderate Republican Governors of Massachusetts and California had no influence in San Diego and cannot win the Republican Presidential nomination. Wilson's feeble attempt at drawing attention to his pro-choice stance on abortion played well with the California voters but resulted in his removal from the convention program. As the Republican Governor of the host state, he should have had a prominent place. Instead those duties and honors went to the Governors of New Jersey and Texas; one is a pro-choice woman who is quiet about it, and the other the conservative son of President Bush.10

Mobilizing Women

Democrats and Republicans agree that women are an important part of the electorate; long gone are the days when party strategists assumed that women voted like their husbands. The conventional wisdom among party pollsters was that the Democratic Party won the Presidency in 1992 because women were 53.5 percent of those voting, yet lost the Congress in 1994 because women were only 51 percent. Instead women were 58 percent of the non-voters. Turn-out made a difference in the outcome despite a larger gender gap in voting patterns in 1994 than in 1992. The women who dropped out in 1994 were heavily non-college educated, white and single.
At the convention the Democrats emphasized the importance of getting women to the polls. Signs and buttons proclaiming that "Working Women Vote" were everywhere at Chicago events, and were also a major theme at the daily women's caucuses. Emily's List, the preeminent PAC for Democratic women candidates, announced plans to spend several million dollars to bring the "drop-out" voters of 1994 to the polls and persuade them to vote Democratic. A coalition of 110 women's organizations announced the "Women's Vote Project" to get women to the polls in ten states: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. While nominally nonpartisan, it was headed by Irene Natividad, former Chair of the National Women's Political Caucus and herself a Democrat.
The Republicans also tried to woo women, but their strategy was to showcase women in order to convince voters that women are important in the party and would be important in a Republican administration.
As in 1984, the last time the RNC pursued the female vote, the convention keynote speaker was a woman, New York Representative Susan Molinari. Women were one-third of those given spots on the podium. Party stalwarts constantly repeated the refrain that the Republican Congress had more women in the leadership than the Democrats ever had. They said that 16 women held committee chairs or leadership posts in the Republican 104th Congress compared to none when the Democrats were in control.
The RNC Co-Chairman, Evelyn W. McPhail, distributed a 185 page "Listing of Local and County-wide Elected Republican Women". A former Chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, McPhail co-ordinates the RNC's outreach programs to special voter blocs, including "a leadership seminar aimed at increasing party support among women."11
The Democrats also put women on the podium, but at only a slightly higher rate than did the Republicans; Democratic Party rules requiring equal division don't apply to speakers. The Democratic strategy emphasized policies and programs to help women. Clinton stressed that his first act as President was to sign the Family and Medical Leave Act that had been vetoed by Bush. Campaign literature listed Clinton achievements as increased breast cancer research, family planning, clinic safety, and help for women-owned businesses.
While both parties professed to be pro-family, the Republicans touted the spin-off benefits for families of their tax cut package, while the Democrats identified specific policies that would help women help their families.
The use of candidates' wives is a traditional strategy for turning out the female vote, though there is no evidence that they make a difference. This year's wives were unlike those in any previous campaigns in that both were lawyers, ambitious women with their own careers.
The conventional wisdom was that Hillary was a liability; for four years she has been a Rorschach test for the public's fears of feminism and feelings about competent, ambitious women in general. Yet two percent of Republican delegates thought Hillary was Clinton's strongest campaign asset, while fewer Democrats agreed. Four percent of the Republican delegates thought she was his greatest liability; five percent of the Democrats agreed. Conversely, only six percent of Republican delegates thought Elizabeth was his [Dole's] strongest asset compared to 24 percent of the Democrats. Virtually no Republicans and only one percent of Democrats saw her as a liability.12 Among Republicans, 73% of the women compared to 54% of the men thought she should keep her job as President of the Red Cross if her husband became President.13
Elizabeth Dole got rave reviews from everyone for her talk-show walk though the convention hall during her address. Hillary didn't play as well in the press but those who came to hear her speak thought she was wonderful. Convention managers lower the lights to calm the crowd and signal when it's time to stop clapping. Even before Hillary spoke, her crowd would not stop. Again and again the lights were lowered. Again and again people kept on clapping. Only after Hillary started to speak, several times, did the crowd cease so they could hear. Whichever delegates told the pollsters she was a liability to the campaign obviously weren't in the convention hall that night.
The major message of each party was aimed at turning out its base rather than the muddled middle of undecided voters. The Republicans emphasized reducing taxes and to a lesser extent balancing the budget. The Democrats pushed "MMEE": Medicare, Medicaid, Education and Environment.
That these are differentially important to each party's base can be seen from the delegate polls. When asked what issue should be the top priority for the next president, the top three for Republican delegates were the budget deficit (29%), economy (23%), and taxes (13%). The top three for Democratic delegates were the economy (33%), education (23%) and health care (19%).14

There was also a gender gap among the voters on these different issue clusters. According to the exit polls, after the economy, taxes and the deficit are most important to men (15%), while medicare and social security (16%), and education (15%) are much more important to women.
There have been gender gaps on a variety of issues since polling began in the 1930s, and even before that non-random surveys showed that more women felt strongly about some issues, such as peace and prohibition, than did men. However, none of these issues have been ones directly identified as feminist. Nor was it clear that these issue gender gaps translated into votes.
Prior to the 1930s, most evidence shows that women voters favored the Republican party more frequently than men. However, since the turn-out rate among women was quite low and the women most likely to vote were from demographic groups which favored Republicans, this gender gap may have been spurious.
The gender gap in voting patterns that appeared in 1980 has proven to be "durable and a growing factor in electoral politics."15 More women than men favor Democrats not only for President, but for many other offices as well. While it's clear that women's lower income and other factors which distinguish them from male voters contribute significantly to their voting more heavily for Democrats, the persistence of a gender gap when other variables are controlled for indicates that sex does play a role. What is not clear is how sex plays a role.
The Democratic campaign was tailored to women, but it does not appear to have persuaded more women to support Clinton than would have otherwise. The 11% gender gap in Presidential voting was much greater than the 4.5 % gap in 1992, but women were only 52% of the voters. More importantly, the gap decreased over time. In the months before the conventions, the polls showed a gender gap of 20% to 25%, which the press characterized as a "gender canyon". This halved by election day. Simultaneously, Clinton's lead over Dole decreased. This implies that despite the female friendly campaign message Clinton's support decreased among those voters who decided late, and in particular among women. Indeed, the polls confirm this; Clinton got only one-third of the votes of those who made up their minds the last week.


The Democratic and Republican Parties remain divided by issues of gender and sex. The polarization of the parties along fault lines created by the feminist movement is profound, as seen in the contrasting ways in which Republican and Democratic administrations identify, articulate and act on gender and sex issues.16 But at the conventions there was a change from four years ago. Unlike 1992, when both parties highlighted these differences, in 1996 they tried to hide them.
Stung by the negative reaction to Pat Buchanan's 1992 "culture wars" speech in which he attacked the Clinton agenda as "radical feminism", the RNC banished him to a far corner of the hall. Perennial anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, a Buchanan delegate from Missouri, said the Dole campaign kept her off the Platform Committee where she has frequently served at past conventions. The 1992 convention program featured political wives -- Marilyn Quayle, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan -- who had no independent careers or gave them up for their husbands. The 1996 convention profiled political women -- Elizabeth Dole and Susan Molinari -- who were politicians first and gave up nothing when they married. While the GOP officially finds affirmative action reprehensible, at the luncheon in her honor Dole gleefully described how she increased women's presence in the Dept. of Transportation, which she headed, by almost 25 percent through special programs.
The Democratic camouflage was to subsume "women" under "families". The DNC's "Talking Points" said "We're here ... to put working families' issues at the center of public debate and public policy." Almost every press release, statement or speech aimed at women used the phrase "women and their families" or "women and children." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called its program the "Families First Agenda", listing "fair pay for women" and "affordable child care" as family programs. One DNC campaign leaflet sandwiched "women" in between in its lead: "Standing Up for Children, for Women, for Families". Programs for families and children were on the front page; those for women on the back.
While repeatedly linking "women" with "children" and "families" was a rhetorical strategy urged by pollsters, it does have the effect of undermining thirty years of feminist education. One of the major criticisms made by the early feminist movement was that women had no independent existence from their families. Their roles, their status, their employment possibilities and other opportunities were defined by their family relationships, current or assumed. "Men" were people; "women and children" were auxiliaries, dependents, or appendages. A consequence of this perceptual bias was that when women interviewed for jobs or applied for educational programs they were always asked about their family circumstances or plans, and judged accordingly. One purpose of the feminist movement was to unlink "women" from "families" and "children" in order to assert their individual rights and their right to be individuals. Now that women finally have some power within the major political parties, the women inside have forgotten one of their reasons for wanting it in the first place.

I am grateful to many people for making it possible for me to research and write about the conventions. The following provided research assistance at the conventions: Carol Martori, Paul Sargent, Jamie Swan, Shoon Lio, Kira Sanbonmatsu and Linda Murphy. Logistical support was provided by Jennie Ruby, Julie Harris, Ed Heck, Judy Nordberg, Jim Wood, Andy McFarland, Janet Clark and Charles Hadley. I would also like to thank the staff at the Lexis/Nexis convention booths for several searches of their databases, Chilton Research Services for sending me the reports of their delegate polls for ABC News and The Washington Post, Blum and Weprin for their delegate polls for NBC News and several other papers, Kathie Frankovic for sending me the delegate polls she did for CBS News and The New York Times and Phillipa Strum for a critical reading of the draft. Information from the Associated Press polls was in press reports found by the Lexis/Nexis staff.


1 A comparison of zip codes to 1990 Census data found that median household income in Republican delegate neighborhoods was $34,295, and in Democratic neighborhoods was $31,656, while the national average was $28,906. The Republican elected officials included 213 state legislators, 110 local officials and 95 members of Congress. Democratic elected officials were not listed separately in any report I found. The AP interviewed 4,042 of the 4,320 Democratic delegates and 1,884 of the 1990 Republican delegates, or 94 percent of the total. This was a census, not a random sample survey. Most were contacted by telephone in late June or during July. Some delegates were replaced prior to each convention. The sample surveys of delegates conducted for other news organizations were generally consistent with the AP census, but there were some significant differences (e.g. union membership) which may have been due to how the questions were worded.

2 Analysis by Gary Langer, Senior Polling Analyst of ABC News, from surveys by Chilton Research Services.

3 At both conventions AT&T provided the press filing rooms, complete with telephones, computer outlets, tables, TVs, lounge chairs and snack food. At the Republican convention Bell South fed the press every day; Ameritech did this in Chicago. In San Diego, AT&T included free local phone calls pursuant to an agreement with the local server, Pacific Bell. In Chicago the local phone company, Ameritech, would not agree to this so reporters had to use phone cards to make local calls. In effect, Ameritech provided more food and fewer amenities than we received at the Republican convention. On claiming their credentials all press representatives got goodie bags, full of tourist literature and product promos. This year's contained plastic mugs from a beer company, t-shirts from a financial advisor, macaroni and cheese boxed in special Democratic and Republican containers, San Diego Zoo lapel pins, Dole raisins, granola and other cereal bars, candy, key rings, mouse pads, posters, and many other things. These offerings were skimpy compared to 1992. Traditionally, the major press organization in the convention city fetes the visiting press the Saturday before the convention begins. This year Copley Publications restricted their invitations to a mere 6,000 press representatives, while the Chicago papers declined to host a party. Instead the City of Chicago did so; about 25,000 came.

4 The ABC delegate poll found 42% wanted this plank and 50% opposed it. The CBS poll found almost the inverse: 48% said the platform should oppose abortion, but 41% wanted to leave it out. This was one of the few issues on which there was a significant sex difference: 50% of the female delegates but only 34% of the men thought the party platform should "take no official stand on abortion". The ABC poll of "Republicans nationally" found 62% opposed a platform plank on abortion, even though only 44% think abortion should be legal.

5 This question was asked by Chilton Research Services for ABC News.

6 A few press representatives did read the possibility for action into the opinions of Platform Committee members. An Associated Press survey of one hundred of the 107 members found 41 who wanted to keep the platform language while 31 said they wanted to remove the plank, 11 said they did not know and 17 refused to answer.

7 I wasn't present at either meeting. This account is based on press reports and conversations with New York City Councilmember Una Clarke, who was a member of the Platform Committee, and a member of the DNC staff.

8 The 1992 Platform drafting process is aptly described in L. Sandy Maisel, "The Platform-Writing Process", Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 108, No. 4, Winter 1993-94, pp. 671-698. With a contested primary, other Democratic candidates had some influence in 1992, but Maisel still concluded that the Platforms were "candidate, not party platforms." I agree with his evaluation of the Democratic Party platform, but believe that the Republican Party platform in both years is more of a compromise between the candidate and important party constituencies.

9 "The Political Culture of the Democratic and Republican Parties", Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 101, No. 3, Fall 1986, pp. 327-356. The homogeneity description comes from then RNC Chair Frank Fahrenkopf, "Campaign 84: The Contest for National Leadership", Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1984, p. 176.

10 Christine Todd Whitman and George W. Bush were the official Temporary Chairmen of the 1996 Republican Convention. The Permanent Chairman was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose podium time was minimal.

11 Information on and quote from McPhail from the Official Press Guide of the RNC. Co-Chairman is her official title.

12 This question was asked by Blum and Weprin on behalf of NBC news and several newspapers of 1785 Republican delegates and 400 Democratic delegates.

13 Question from the CBS survey of Republican delegates.

14 Question asked by Blum and Weprin for NBC News. The environment was not on their list.

15 Denise Baer, "The Gender Gap and the 1996 Democratic and Republican Conventions", unpublished paper released August 26, 1996.

16 Kira Sanbonmatsu, "Gender Issues: Challenge to the Party System, 1968-1996", paper given at the 1996 meeting of the American Political Science Association.