Republicans entered their convention with multiple challenges: (1) introducing Paul Ryan; (2) reintroducing Mitt Romney; (3) showing some diversity in a party that’s in deep trouble with minority voters; (4) exhibiting excitement and enthusiasm; (5) tightening their negative case against Barack Obama; (6) presenting a plausible positive agenda related to the shortcomings in Obama’s performance they had identified; and (7) avoiding mistakes.
The general judgment (or mine, anyway) is that they did a reasonably good job with (1), (3) and (5); a minimally effective job with (2) and (4); and fell significantly short on (6) and (7). Some of these tasks involved serious tradeoffs: Ryan’s effective speech, and to a considerable extent Romney self-“humanization,” came at the direct expense of a positive presentation of a coherent agenda. You’d never know listening to Ryan that he was the author of a budget resolution that constitutes most of the GOP agenda; to the uninitiated, he came across as a nice, non-controversial young man who is most focused on protecting his mother’s Medicare benefits from Barack Obama. This image will obviously not bear a great deal of scrutiny. Despite a brisk recitation of his alleged 5-point “jobs plan,” Romney did not do much to connect his burnished autobiography to any policy specifics, particularly as related to economic recovery and jobs. His speech may have been effectively reassuring to voters who have already decisively turned against the incumbent and simply want to be convinced the GOP nominee is not a robotic corporate executive, but didn’t exactly seal the deal otherwise.
Nor did the convention convey a lot of contagious excitement. You’d have figured that Ryan’s selection sufficiently satisfied conservative activists that the ticket would be loudly and proudly ideological, but only a handful of speeches had the delegates roaring or the conservative punditocracy cheering. Clearly rules were laid out prohibiting speakers from sowing dissension and controversy via shout-outs to the Tea Party Movement (which was not mentioned even once from the podium), and from discussing cultural issues (other than dog-whistle references to “life,” the “unborn,” “family” and “marriage,” plus some more general “constitutional conservative” rhetoric about the eternally binding nature of the Declaration of Independence and its allegedly theocratic origins and “natural-rights” orientation).
And then, of course, there was Clint Eastwood’s bizarre appearance, occurring at the very moment broadcast network cameras came on to cover Romney’ acceptance speech. If nothing else, it represented an unwelcome distraction, and along with the nominee’s understated performance, undermined the positive impressions created by Ryan’s big speech the night before.
The few post-convention polls have shown mixed results, but it appears any convention “bounce” for Romney/Ryan amounted to just a few points, and could fade. A more specific Gallup analysis of impressions from the convention, and of Romney’s speech, showed minimal positive impact for the GOP as compared with recent conventions of both parties.
A more difficult question is whether the small-to-non-existent “bounce” reflected the Convention itself, or simply an environment in which relatively few undecided voters were affected by an event many did not bother to watch (network ratings for the GOP convention were basically terrible, though that might at least in part reflect the continuing phenomenon of broadcast TV losing viewers to cable or streaming video). The latter proposition might suggest that the Democratic event won’t produce much of a “bounce,” either, making the back-to-back conventions essentially a wash.
Objectives for the Democratic convention are a bit simpler but than those for the potentially for the GOP event, but no less difficult: (1) Making a positive case for the administration’s accomplishments at a time of 8% unemployment, chronic market jitters, media alarms about deficits and debt, partisan gridlock, and sour public attitudes towards the signature Affordable Care Act initiative; (2) accentuating Obama’s likability, a key advantage over Romney (though possibly one that was eroded by the Republican convention); (3) rebutting Republican attack lines on welfare and Medicare; (4) dealing with “broken promises” claims comparing current national conditions with what the president talked about in 2008; and (5) recreating the “big choice” framework that makes the election less of an up-or-down referendum on the president’s performance while ramping up Democratic “base” enthusiasm for voting in what will likely be a turnout-driven result.
The interplay of factors (1), (4) and (5) and their trickiness were exhibited by the brief confusion over the weekend about the Democratic “line” on the famous “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” question, which was a centerpiece of Romney’s convention speech. Polls have consistently shown considerable public understanding of the “bad hand” Obama was dealt, and the substantial responsibility Republicans bear for dealing it. The apparent Democratic Convention messaging strategy will be to closely link the Romney/Ryan agenda to George W. Bush’s, and to expose its irrelevance and/or opposition to what is needed to promote a strong economic recovery.
A key figure in making that case—and to an equal extent, in achieving Objective #2, especially with respect to the Romney campaign’s racially-tinged ads mendaciously accusing Obama of “abolishing” the architecture of the 1996 welfare reform law—is former president Bill Clinton, who will be the big speaker on Wednesday night.
In terms of Objective #5, you can expect a massive, sustained effort to take the bloom off Paul Ryan, and publicize the very radicalism and specificity of his budget that has made him the Maximum Hero to conservative activists. Democratic speakers will likely be equally uninhibited in raising the kind of cultural issues that were largely taboo at the GOP event, in part to boost the enthusiasm of culturally progressive younger voters, and in part to head off Republican gains among college-educated women who might be alarmed if fully aware of the GOP ticket’s many promises to restrict or even abolish reproductive rights.
Expectations for Obama’s speech will unavoidably be higher than for Romney. But at least Democrats can be reasonably sure he won’t be preceded to the podium by an octogenarian actor debating an empty chair.