Deflating: Democrats not into balloon drop tradition
September 6th, 2012
06:40 PM ET
9 years ago

Deflating: Democrats not into balloon drop tradition

(CNN) – Even with a last-minute decision to move indoors, the Democratic Party's festivities tonight will not include the time-honored tradition of a balloon drop at the end of Barack Obama's acceptance speech. But just how old is that tradition, and how much has it mattered to the Democrats?

The 1956 Republican gathering that re-nominated Dwight Eisenhower marks the first time that newspapers mention a balloon drop at a convention. The Republicans have staged a balloon drop at every convention since then - an unbroken record of 15 conventions, including this year's meeting in Florida when about 120,000 balloons and 500 pounds of confetti were dumped on delegates from the rafters of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

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Newspaper records indicate that the first balloon drop at a Democratic convention didn't occur until almost a quarter of a century later when Jimmy Carter was re-nominated in 1980. The party broke with that tradition in 2008, when the last night of their convention was held outdoors at Invesco Field in Denver.

The Democrats' track record on balloon drops has been mixed. That first balloon drop, in Madison Square Garden in New York on the night that Carter accepted his party's re-nomination, was a bust.

"Only a dribble of balloons came forth as some backstage crew worked wretchedly to jerk the containers open before the mesmerized throng," the New York Times reported. "'Free the Democratic balloons!' came a shout in the hall."

Convention managers also had technical issues at the 2004 Democratic meeting, when cages of balloons suspended from the ceiling did not empty fast enough to suit Don Mischer, who produced the convention.

Unfortunately, Mischer's instructions to his technical staff, including his exasperated and eventually potty-mouthed demands for more balloons, were being broadcast live by CNN.

"It's always very stressful when it comes down to the final night and making sure everything is on cue," said Treb Heining, owner of the Glass House Balloon Company, who has planned every GOP balloon drop since 1988 and consulted or worked on some Democratic ones as well. "The tripping of the effect [when the speech finishes] is always the most difficult because it has to be done flawlessly."

Planning for the balloon drop begins months in advance. Heining first met with convention officials in May to begin planning the iconic moment of Mitt Romney's acceptance last week in Tampa. After presenting ideas, surveying the venue, and forming a crew, his team worked with a local Florida high school to inflate at rate of 21,000 balloons per hour.

The one-day inflation process began at 8 a.m. with the 120 local students and adult advisers. They were fully rigged through a system of funnels by 6 p.m. that day. "It was a record time this year," Heining said.

In 1964, the Democrats tried to emulate the GOP's decision to drop stuff on the delegates, but according to newspaper accounts, it wasn't a balloon drop. The balloons that the convention managers had stationed in the rafters of the Atlantic City Convention Center, stayed up in the ceiling (possibly by design), while delegates were showered instead with red, white and blue stars and tiny Americans flags on parachutes.

The Republican tradition dating back to 1956 also marked the first time since television cameras had invaded convention halls in 1948 that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The convention managers had the luxury – and the desire - to pretty up otherwise dull proceedings as the GOP unanimously re-nominated Eisenhower and his running mate, Richard Nixon.

Back then, according to records at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, the convention managers called it a "balloon barrage" rather than a "balloon drop." The balloons themselves were several different colors and had "I Like Ike" and "We Want Dick" printed on them. Journalists complained that the avalanche of balloons made it impossible to use their typewriters, and they began popping them with lit cigarettes. That caused the Secret Service agents in the hall to have conniptions, because the popping balloons sounded too much like gunfire. Ike and Dick didn't seem to notice.

The Republicans liked the "balloon barrage" so much that they brought it back for every subsequent convention - an unbroken record that stretches over more than half a century.

"When you get in the moment and you're cueing everything and I'm watching and listening to the producers, it takes a life of its own," Heining said. "It's just a fun moment. It's almost like a performance. It's really an honor to be apart of it ever 4 years."

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. CanadaONE

    Republicans are like ballons – one little poke and they burst into thin air – where was Romeny when Bush drove your economy into the hole – I know ! in his little 5ooo million dollar ballon in the Cayman Islands

    September 6, 2012 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  2. Tubby the Tuba Texas

    The Republicans need garbage dumped on them for being wingnuts!

    September 6, 2012 07:26 pm at 7:26 pm |
  3. California

    Democrats aren't into anything American.

    September 6, 2012 07:30 pm at 7:30 pm |
  4. Larry L

    On the Texas Coast as you drive along the beach you'll see many helium balloons washed up on the shore. It's the sort of trash that creates problems for the sea turtles, birds and fish. When people release these balloons they follow the wind and gradually deflate and drop down into the waterways. Not only are they a trash problem the helium is wasted on these balloons when it's needed for many critical industrial processes. Doing without balloons is any easy sacrifice for the environment.

    September 6, 2012 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
  5. Right-wing freaks!


    Democrats aren't into anything American.
    Shouldn't you be doing your homework? Listen to the teacher... Really, really listen...

    September 6, 2012 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  6. CanadaONE

    What a difference in CONVENTIONS

    the RNC LOOKED AN SOUNDED LIKE A Mormon serman
    the DNC LOOKS AND SOUNDS LIKE the Amercian people bold and bright and uplifting

    get back to you boring tea party GOP

    September 6, 2012 08:13 pm at 8:13 pm |
  7. cathy

    Pollution! Where does all that confetti and busted balloons end up at the end of the night? In a land fill!

    September 6, 2012 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  8. Marie MD

    @California, balloons are American? Where do you people come from?

    September 6, 2012 09:01 pm at 9:01 pm |
  9. T'sah From Virginia

    Democrats aren't into anything Americanâ—„

    Wow – that's a BLOWN UP statement – Keep BLOWING – it would surely POP!!!

    Obama/Biden 2012 – The Only Trusted Way Forward!!

    September 6, 2012 09:33 pm at 9:33 pm |
  10. Griff.

    "But of course! There's been enough inflation of the economy under Obama. The US Dollar is worth less than it's cousin up north!"

    September 6, 2012 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |