What to Watch for at the Conventions

July 5, 2016, 10:30 AM UTC

It’s been decades since America’s two major political conventions weren’t deeply boring. In 2012, Tom Brokaw described the quadrennial intra-party lovefests as “extravagant infomercials staged in a setting deliberately designed to seal them off from any intrusion not scrubbed and sanitized.” In 2008, CNN called conventions “relics.” And in 2004, The American Prospect called the whole practice “entirely irrelevant.”

This year’s events, though, promise to be a lot more interesting. To a degree not seen since the Vietnam War era, the specter of conflict and chaos looms over both parties’ proceedings. And consequential fights over rules and platforms—with big implications for ­business—could have a showing on the typically staid convention floor.

In Cleveland, where Donald Trump is slated to become his party’s nominee in late July, there are already more protest groups than there are marching permits. The ACLU is suing the city to make sure protesters aren’t shut out. One local organizer warned of a potential “bloodbath” as demonstrators from different camps vie for time in the limited designated spaces, and activists are already invoking Chicago’s infamous Democratic convention of 1968. Just one week after Cleveland, the Democrats will host their convention in Philadelphia, where more than 20,000 people have promised to converge to air their grievances with Hillary Clinton and back Bernie Sanders, whose supporters have a history of clashing with the party establishment.

But it’s not just the protests that will make this year’s conventions worth watching. “The whole process has become more significant,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In addition to nominating the party’s candidate, conventions are where party rules and priorities get hashed out—and debates at the events will have implications for everything from U.S.-Israeli relations to business’s relationship to government. For example, if Sanders representatives have their way with the Democratic platform, they could affect the party’s official stance on issues like the minimum wage, banking regulations, and whether to keep “free” in the section calling for “free and fair trade.”

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While the party’s platforms aren’t binding, brewing fights over their contents reveal the documents’ importance this year. Witness Sanders’ rebuke of the Democratic National Committee in May, accusing it of sidelining his supporters and writing in an open letter, “We are prepared to mobilize our delegates to force as many votes as necessary to amend the platform and rules on the floor of the convention.”

The GOP, meanwhile, will grapple with an even weightier question this summer: Could establishment Republicans still challenge Trump’s nomination? Sure, Trump has enough votes to win on the first ballot, but those delegates probably can’t technically be bound by state laws to support him—a procedural detail that has fueled persistent rumblings about the emergence of an 11th-hour candidate. Also driving anxieties: Trump has declined to moderate his tone in the run-up to the conventions. That, and a spate of dismal poll numbers, has stoked fears that his nomination could cost the GOP not just the presidency but even its majorities in Congress—an event that could lead to a radically different D.C. climate next year.

Any fight over Trump’s nomination will come down to the rules committee. Typically a scene devoid of cameras, the committee could see real clashes this year over RNC rules like whether a candidate must have won eight states in order to be nominated (a requirement that currently bars late convention challengers) and whether the early primaries should be closed (keeping them open to independent voters is thought to yield more centrist candidates). Rules committee member Solomon Yue says this year could see a volatile voting process: “From that perspective, I think there is a lot of uncertainty, to be honest with you.”

The heightened spotlight on convention politics has made business particularly wary this year. Some companies have pared back their convention giving or cut it altogether. Apple (AAPL), for example, pulled out specifically over incendiary remarks made by Trump, according to reports citing company insiders.

Beyond the rhetoric, though, Trump’s protectionist and anti-immigration views also rankle. At the convention, for the first time in years, the GOP may be forced to litigate its pro-­business allegiances. Count on the debate to ­resonate long after the ­election is over.

For more, read “The 2016 Republican and Democratic Conventions by the Numbers.”

A version of this article appears in the July 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “This Year, Conventions Matter Again.”

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