There is a curious interaction at national party conventions between the physical setup of the convention writ large, the effective content of its substantive program, and the technology by which this substance is communicated. All have changed over time, but they have changed in ways that are at least partially related. So, now that Hurricane Isaac has moved far enough away to allow programming—though never far enough away to be absent from the strategizing of convention leaders—and now that the hall has actually been used to deliver a program on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights, it is probably time to consider the two sides of this interaction, ‘the Hall’ and ‘the Program’.
There are two grand and gross ways for the convention leadership to organize the podium at a convention, the central physical focus for its substantive output. For lack of an established vocabulary, I shall call these “imperial” and “folksy”. In the imperial setup, the podium towers above the convention floor, signifying leadership, and focuses attention on the leader. In the folksy setup, by contrast, every effort is made to integrate the podium with the floor so as to project a kind of ‘common man’ or ‘one of us’ persona—though there are some inherent limits on this, given constraints of both visibility and security.
The distinction is rarely as stark as it was in 2008, especially if we use the setup for the acceptance speech as a focus. The Republicans tried to move the podium toward the floor, while providing a walkway down the middle of the hall, on which speakers could ‘casually’ stroll. This is folksy, if you will. The Democrats, most especially when using that outdoor arena, were physically biased toward the imperial mode instead—made only more stereotypical by those styrofoam pillars in the backdrop. My highly impressionistic observation—I find that I recall only a few, particularly distinctive podium arrangements—is that this has little to do with party per se. Republicans do one approach in one year, another approach in another. So do Democrats.
This impression is only reinforced by the fact that the podium arrangement for this year’s Republican convention reverts, in my view, to the imperial. This podium did get some advance attention in its own right—its designer became a political mini-celebrity—for its ostensible twenty-first-century character: the multiple interactive frames, the constantly changing support screens around the central speaker. Be that as it may, this podium is also what might be described as neo-ziggurat, with its multiple ascending stairs leading the eye high above the convention floor. It will be harder to take the Democratic podium in the other direction, especially with regard to the key substantive presentation, the acceptance speech, since one sees few arena concerts, for example, where the performers are on the floor. Still, this is very much available to observe next week, and everyone can have a personal judgment.
On the other hand, one major area in which presentation of the hall has moved in regular and interpretable directions involves the mass media of information, and here, most especially the television networks. The earliest conventions of my personal experience, in the early 1980s, already testified to a certain primacy for the three major networks. Each had towering platforms rising from the floor of the hall directly opposite to the podium—I recall them as three stories tall—with a long, gradually declining set of platform steps running downward toward that podium. At their top, the towers held the main anchor booth for each network; I remember the final part of the climb toward these as moderately adventurous. And the declining platform steps ordinarily held a live orchestra plus multiple camera locations for rich and close podium coverage.
Among other things, this altered the hierarchy of delegation seating in noticeable ways. The prime spots on the floor are always those which form an inner arc directly opposite the podium. The farther back you are, and the farther off to the side you are, the less desirable is your location. In that regard, even televised observers will (or can) have noticed that Wisconsin was one of the three delegations holding a prime position this time, being left-center front when observed from the podium. In the era of gargantuan network platforms, however, these platforms added a major twist to the basic status calculation. For being in the center of the hall yet butted up against the network platforms was relatively undesirable. A delegation could actually be in shadow while on the floor of the convention hall.
For a time, this became even more true. The platforms grew in breadth but especially depth. And then the whole setup shifted in the opposite direction, where it remains today. It may be tempting to hypothesize that this reflected the reduced dominance of the three major networks, first as new and consequential competitors arose in the world of television, then as other media of information began to challenge the television world as prime news sources. In truth, however, this is probably best seen as a simple reflection of changing (and much-improved) technology. Cameras just became simultaneously far less bulky and far more powerful.
One of the central vignettes in the Theodore H. White series on the politics of presidential selection—his The Making of the President 1960 usually gets pride of place, but this, my favorite vignette, comes from The Making of the President 1968—involves Hubert Humphrey being nominated “in a sea of blood”. Television cameras of the time produced videotape, which then had to be edited before it could move onto the home screen. Videotape on the violence outside the convention hall was being edited as Humphrey was being nominated, and it finally arrived—to be put immediately on the home screen—just at the point when his nomination was culminating. Twenty years later, cameras could avoid this edited-videotape stage if they had advantageous and appropriate positioning. This avoidance was one justification of the gargantuan platform era. Twenty years further on, those cameras were lighter, easier, and more dispersed—and the central platforms had shrunk radically.
This still says nothing about the truly new, electronic media, which clearly have a growing but still far from dominating news presence. There is a burgeoning presence for the main institutional embodiments among these media over the last three conventions, and they require far less physical support. More striking (at least to me) is the explosion of what can be roughly collected as ‘the blogosphere’. If I have my dates right, their possible existence was first acknowledged as physically worth recognizing at the 2004 conventions, with small and mean blog stations that were hard to reach. By 2008, both conventions instead allocated a very large ‘blog bullpen’, with many small tables and many plug-in points of access.
The rise of the electronic media had one other main implication, major for me through probably minor for convention operatives. When I began going to conventions and up until 2004—but really, up until 2008—one of my main mantras was “Take the paper”. This implied two related things. The main one was that much of what was produced at national party conventions, by the official party and by all sorts of other individuals and groups who wanted to use the convention for their own purposes, had a shelf-life quite literally of hours. It was produced once, and it never appeared again.
While they did not regard this fact as so explicitly noteworthy as I did, the major news media clearly recognized it, in that they often had a person who was specifically assigned to tour regularly through the media information center and pick up speaker bios and podium texts. This is an aspect of convention coverage that has nearly disappeared. The parties now produce almost all such material online. The media press center, such as it is, is mainly concerned with supporting foreign media, with those convention materials that do not have a one-day shelf life but can be used as reference throughout the week.
Implicit in all that has gone before is a further distinction within the national party convention, one with powerful implications for the substance of its program. In this, there is a convention on site and a convention at home, and they have surprisingly limited overlap. As network coverage has declined and declined, the convention leadership can now hope to have at most two, but normally one, of the speeches in each evening’s session covered live and extensively. This is a half-hour to forty-five minutes of national television coverage, yet the convention is in session for four hours each evening. (Not to mention the morning session that usually opens a Republican Convention, and never gets any coverage.) A bit of this is musical entertainment, video presentations, and accidental dead time, but the difference is still huge. Somewhere between seventy-five and eighty-seven percent of podium presentations cannot be expected to appear before the national viewing audience at all.
Inescapably, then, there are always two nested conventions, the one observable within the hall and the one observable in living rooms across America. Convention leaderships would always prefer to increase the size of the latter. Yet they have learned to think strategically about which speeches belong in which part, and to schedule accordingly. Some of this thinking is guided by the choices that we reviewed yesterday, between organizing the convention program to foster a referendum on the incumbent administration versus organizing it to deconstruct the incumbent coalition and pick off specified pieces. Much of this division is also tied to the use of the convention for a national message versus its use for firing up the troops or for fostering state and local messages—which may of course help with the construction of national majorities. The two choices are inevitably related.
The program from Tuesday evening was in fact an excellent example of both sets of strategic choices. Convention planners desperately hoped that the addresses by Ann Romney, wife of the nominee, and Chris Christie, the traditional keynoter, would be broadcast nationally in whole or in large part. And in this, they were in fact successful. But that still left more than three hours of podium time which the networks left essentially untouched and for which, in truth, the program planners had never had any serious aspirations, even as they thought seriously about how best to use this time. One such use was to fire up the delegates, alternates, and guests who were in the hall. Another was to showcase individuals who might be able to use podium time (and the saved record thereof) in targeted electoral campaigns back in the states and localities.
In the process of developing the specifics of these choices, convention planners were also inevitably choosing between a referendum versus a deconstruction in their overall approach to campaign strategy. Tuesday night was overwhelmingly in accord with the ‘referendum’ approach. The theme was that the administration had failed at the single great issue of the campaign, growing the economy and putting people back to work, and that the Republicans knew how to succeed at precisely this. The overarching theme was supported by the theme of the day, “We Built It”, responding to a frequently played clip from President Obama to the effect that if you had created a small business, “You Didn’t Build It”. This was the hammer for Chris Christie, and indeed for most non-televised speakers of the evening.
The sole exception even within the hall, of a speech with a heavy dose of social conservatism, came from former Senator and nomination aspirant Rick Santorum, and that received no extended national coverage. Otherwise, while Ann Romney provided some reinforcement to this theme as well, her assignment was the real exception to the referendum argument, for it was her job to make the nominee, her husband, a ‘real person’, and thus to counter personal attacks from the Obama campaign.
On the other hand, in the incarnations of the main referendum argument among the many speeches achieving no national notice, there were two further recurrent themes, one major and one minor. The major one was the problems of small business in the current environment, the virtues of small business in generating jobs, and the difficulty that the alleged failure of the Administration created in these regards. The small-business theme was apparently considered to be especially powerful for those who would be present in the hall, and within the hall, it appeared to work well. The minor theme was the special place of recent immigrants in this small-business story, and thus the harm being done to these immigrants by the failure of the economy to grow.
A different aspect of this on-site versus off-site focus of podium presentations involves national versus state or local appeal. Many of those who amplified either this small-business or this immigrant sub-theme were in fact candidates for Senator, Governor, Congressman, or state line office. They might not—in fact they did not—get extended national coverage, and the vast majority got none at all, even fleeting. But they were speaking to the Republican National Convention, they would have complete clips of their podium performance, and these would include flashes of an adoring audience from their specific states on the floor. All of this would have been carefully and consciously prepared by convention-based and state- or local-based staffers.
The complete thematic focus of the Republican Convention will not come into full contextual context until we can see the same things for the Democratic Convention. In this regard, conventions can differ in an explicit and ongoing partisan way, when Republicans talk about one set of themes while Democrats talk about another. Or conventions can ‘differ’ by talking about the same set of themes, the main issues of the day, but in a fashion that is sharply distinguished by party. They can even differ at the grand strategic level, by having one party take the referendum approach, the other opt for deconstruction. Until we have seen the Democratic Convention at least in large part, it is not possible to know how this plays out. So this blog will return on Monday—perhaps even not until Tuesday—when it can establish the full framework for watching the Democratic Convention, while simultaneously evaluating the mass impact of the Republican Convention, what is known as the ‘bump or the ‘bounce’. See you then.