The Conventions

Howdy from Oklahoma! 

Sebastian Herrmann and Catarina Rost have asked me to blog about the ongoing presidential race. I’m beginning by an (overly long, I’m afraid) post on the just-completed conventions as we enter the home stretch of this long campaign.

First, a note about that last sentence. Traditionally Labor Day (which was last Monday) is the kickoff of the fall presidential campaign.  But this week feels less like the beginning of the campaign than the beginning of its end.  The long, consequential primary process has contributed to that impression, as have the very late conventions. While in the past the conventions usually happened further apart from each other and ended well before Labor Day, this year they came on consecutive weeks and straddled the holiday.  And there really hasn’t been a break from campaigning, though Obama did take a week off in Hawaii (the state of his birth) during the first week of the Olympics, when attention was, perhaps for the last time, focused elsewhere.  At any rate, the dominant impression now, on the part of both press and public, is not that we’re in the first week of a nine-week long presidential campaign, but that we’re about to enter the last eight weeks of a ten-month long political marathon.

So what did the conventions do….and what do they tell us about these two candidates and their campaigns?

We’ve just finished a week both surprising and bizarre.  Just a week ago Thursday, Barack Obama delivered what many considered one of the greatest convention speeches in modern history.  He even had archconservative pundit and former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan gushing!  Then on Friday, the McCain campaigned announced that their Vice Presidential candidate would be Sarah Palin, who has been Governor of Alaska for eighteen months and, before that, was Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population c. 5,500.  And as the U.S. was digesting this news, Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans, threatening to be a repeat of Katrina, which hit the Crescent City almost exactly three years ago.  As a result of Gustav’s predicted landfall, Republicans decided to essentially cancel the public events from the first day of their convention on Monday.  As it turned out, Gustav was blessedly weaker than expected and New Orleans, thanks in part to better planning, came through with flying colors.  All of this, however, seems like ancient history, because from Tuesday through Thursday, the Republicans held a convention that appears to have been as politically successful as the Democratic convention the previous week. 

Both the Democrats and the Republicans accomplished what they had to.  Going into the Democratic convention, the media narrative was dominated by the supposed division between Clinton and Obama supporters that threatened to tear the party apart.  In fact, this division had become largely fictional. Obama and McCain had similar support among registered voters in their own parties heading into the conventions.  Nevertheless, the Democrats had to display unity, and they did an excellent job of doing so, through speeches by both Hillary and Bill Clinton that strongly endorsed Barack Obama, as well as by Hillary herself requesting that Obama be declared the nominee by acclamation.  The other major task facing the Democrats was defining their ticket and overcoming the sense that Obama was more sizzle than steak.  Again, this was accomplished very successfully, through a solid speech by Biden on Wednesday night and an extraordinary speech by Obama on Thursday.

The Republicans faced a different set of concerns: building excitement within the party for John McCain, a candidate that many movement conservatives viscerally distrust as too pragmatic and moderate, and building credibility for Sarah Palin, an entirely new presence on the political scene who, while providing a lot of excitement for the far right (thus helping to solve the McCain problem) was an utterly unknown factor to the nation at large.  Again, the convention accomplished both goals.  The weekend before the convention was tough for Sarah Palin: a seemingly endless series of scandals both personal and political were reported in the press, and questions were raised both about her qualifications for the Vice Presidency and about the McCain campaign’s seemingly inadequate vetting process.  All of this bad news was, however, masterfully handled by the McCain campaign, which focused on the personal scandals (they themselves released news of seventeen-year-old daughter Bristol Palin’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy), while accusing Palin critics of unfairly focusing on the personal.  Attention thus diverted from the political questions about Palin, the McCain campaign worked on lowering expectations for Wednesday’s speech. They needn’t have worried. Palin is an effective politician and her speech, which focused largely on her personal story and attacks on the Democratic ticket, was a huge success with the media and the public.  If anything it was too much of a success; by most accounts it overshadowed McCain’s workmanlike Thursday speech, which again focused on the candidate himself, though this time attacks on Obama and Biden were replaced by an attempt to coopt the Obama theme of  “change.”

It’s too soon to tell what the cumulative effect of these two conventions was on the race. Traditionally, candidates receive a “bounce” from their conventions, that is a significant increase in their polling numbers that usually proves fleeting.  While these bounces used to be in the double digits, in recent years convention bounces have been smaller, in part, political scientists and pollsters theorize, because voters are more familiar with the candidates through our now drawn-out primary process.   In 2004, both Kerry and Bush seemed to have bounces that stayed under five percent.  This year, Obama’s bounce was significantly larger than this. And tracking polls seem to indicate that McCain is in the midst of a similarly sizable bounce.  But never before have the two conventions happened in consecutive weeks, so how these two bounces will interact is still something of a mystery.  In a week or so, I’ll put up a post on polling numbers that will try to say something about this.

For the moment, let me conclude with some thoughts on two big differences between the two conventions and the two presidential campaigns.

In the midst of the Republican convention, Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, told the Washington Post that, “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”  Davis statement was greeted with a certain amount of ridicule from the Obama camp. But Davis was actually offering a pretty good description of the focus of the Republican convention. And, to a great extent, this focus seems to have worked. Rather than stress Palin’s hard-right political views or actual record as Governor of Alaska and Mayor of Wasilla, Palin and other speakers concentrated on her life story.  She was presented, first and foremost, as a “hockey mom,” a small-town woman who rose through persistence, intelligence, charm, and assertiveness. Much of the rest of the convention was devoted to telling and retelling McCain’s life story, especially his harrowing experiences in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp.  May of the attacks on Obama and the Democrats were similarly personal. Returning to the culture wars of years past, the Democrats were attacked as elitist and un-American. Most of this discourse was delivered in fairly coded way.  For example, Palin, who never mentioned Obama by name, noted that she felt proud to be an American every day, an oblique reference to a widely reported statement by Michelle Obama, Barack Obama’s wife, that she felt proud of her country for the first time.  (On Friday, the cat was let partially out of the bag when Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) called the Obamas “uppity,” a racially-charged term of abuse that is just a step short of using the N-word. )

In contrast, the Democratic convention focused on issues, both in its positive discussions of Obama and its negative discussions of McCain.  Obama made a point of outlining specific policy proposals in his speech, thus largely satisfying critics who had accused him of talking only in generalities. And throughout the convention speakers went out of their way to praise McCain’s personal heroism while accusing him of voting with the deeply unpopular George W. Bush over 90% of the time.  Even the most personal attacks on McCain concerned traits directly connected with policymaking: Obama accused his opponent of lacking the judgment and temperament to be a good president.

The second difference between the two conventions and campaigns was subtler, but, I think, just as important.  From its beginnings over a year ago, the Obama campaign has taken the long view of this election.  They’ve planned carefully in advance, laid out a strategy, and largely stuck to it.  This slow and steady, long-view approach is visible in all sorts of ways. There’s a remarkable consistency of messaging from his campaign. And the greatest innovation in Obama’s approach is the careful building of an enormous grassroots get-out-the-vote effort, an expensive and very long-term proposition, which helped Obama win the nomination through accumulating wins in small, caucus states, and which he hopes will make the difference in November. At one point in the summer, Obama’s campaign had more than three times as many local offices nationwide as McCain’s. 

This approach was clearly reflected in the Democratic Convention, which ran remarkably smoothly, even in its final night when it was moved to a much larger venue, the 76,000 seat Invesco Field stadium, designed principally for American football.  And throughout that last night, speakers urged listeners to text message the Obama campaign and get on its phonelist; even at the convention, the Obama campaign was building its grassroots network.

The McCain campaign has taken an utterly different approach. More media driven and much more focused on repeatedly winning short term battles, the McCain campaign seems most interested in dominating each news cycle, a process that often involves rapid changes in message.  Already the locus classicus of this approach has become the Palin pick itself.  Palin was chosen both rapidly and at the last minute in response, in part, to what the Democratic convention had done to the campaign.  And her appearance alongside McCain a week ago Friday instantly and effectively moved everyone’s attention off of Obama’s convention speech and onto the Republicans.  News cycle victory: McCain. 

The McCain campaign clearly thinks that if they win enough of these little battles they’ll win the war. And the very inconsistency of this approach—two weeks ago, the McCain campaign was focusing on denouncing Obama as inexperienced and a celebrity; this week they’re positively selling Palin’s newfound celebrity—might knock Obama off his message (though so far it hasn’t).  This rapid fire, rapidly changing style of campaigning is only made possible by the generally greater party discipline of the Republicans, who throughout the convention generally showed their by-now-legendary ability to stay on message with their leadership.  Though when she thought the mic was turned off, former Reagan speechwriter and Republican pundit Peggy Noonan declared the Palin pick to be a disaster that would lose the election for her party, with the mics on, everyone (even Noonan) said what they were supposed to say.

But one side effect of the slightly seat-of-the-pants approach that the McCain campaign has taken is that, for once, the Democratic convention ran more smoothly than the Republican convention.  After a nearly glitch-free week in Denver, the Republicans convention was plagued by a series of minor screw ups: Giuliani spoke too long, forcing the Republicans to cancel the video that had been planned to introduce Sarah Palin; McCain’s speech went on past the end of prime-time on the East Coast; and, perhaps most embarrassingly, McCain began his address in front of a hideous green backdrop, similar to the much criticized backdrop of his rambling speech on the night that the Democratic primaries finally concluded.  More distant shots of the scene seemed to show McCain in front of a mansion (not an image that his campaign would have wanted).  It later turned out to have been a picture of Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, California.  The McCain campaign had apparently wanted an image of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in DC, but simply goofed.  But if the McCain campaign’s approach will, pretty predictably, produce more such minor gaffes, they seem little troubled by them.  The convention worked despite these glitches. And everyone remembers Sarah Palin’s speech, not the lime-green lawn of Walter Reed Middle School.




Thanks for the great assessment of the conventions. Being there, however, made it seem like the Republicans lost the convention battle. After all, there were open seats in the Xcel Energy Center even during McCain’s speech. And at the Democratic convention there was just so much positive energy! But at the same time, it is really hard to evaluate how the conventions are perceived by the broader public when you are right there. At least I felt like I was in the center of the storm without really knowing what was going on.