There were some good reasons, none of which would appeal to a working journalist, to wait a couple of days before writing about the final evening of the Republican National Convention. For Mitt Romney, this final evening must have been a source of substantial satisfaction. If most working journalists did not hail him as the emerging orator of his time, most did appear to believe that he had checked all the boxes on his rhetorical to-do list. For me, the final evening instead brought back, in a quite intense way, the distinction between the convention on-site and the convention at-home. Important things were seen on-site that, in effect, never occurred for most of those who were watching on network television. I need to talk about these. But important adjustments were occurring through the process of network coverage, as it inevitably selected and amended, which were equally invisible to most of those in the hall. I can only point to them abstractly, since they were invisible to me, too.
On the other hand, this is the first ‘real’ day of Democratic Convention. Though for those of us who have been here before, it does not feel much like opening day at all. This is the cancelled Monday, redubbed the ‘day of service’. All delegations are in town, almost all having come in yesterday. All interested parties can go downtown to the Convention Center, which contains the various locations for group meetings of the day, along with most working space for the press, plus the approved stalls for convention merchandise. Where the Convention Center in Tampa required press credentials for access and had heavy security, the Convention Center in Charlotte is open to everyone wearing something around their neck that looks ‘official’: my badge and lanyard for “New Jersey Democrats, Charlotte” proved perfectly adequate.
Not so the entrée into the hall, the Time Warner Cable Arena, which required press credentials (by then around my neck as well). I shall say some things about the hall below. Though one thing I learned very painfully (in 90+ degree weather) is that, unlike Tampa, one cannot easily walk out of the Arena and back to other convention facilities. Forty-five minutes later, I was still walking, trying to get outside the security perimeter in fashion providing some hope of a cab. Each party gives with one hand and takes with the other! Be that as it may, today is devoted to wrapping up the Republican Convention, prying open the Democratic Convention, and setting up some of the comparisons between the two that should organize the next three or four days.
On Site and At Home, Revisited
It is neither surprising nor interesting that much of the truly formalistic business of the convention—confirmation of the membership of the Committee on Permanent Organization, for example—does not leave any trace in televised home coverage. Yet even the best oratorical moments of the Republican Convention, as with the speech by Condaleeza Rice, or the most widely argued presentations, as with the ‘skit’ by Clint Eastwood, can be used to make the point. Rice made the listener feel that it was possible to speak simply and intelligently to the general public. Her speech was clearly the rhetorical height of the convention, but it received only ‘look-ins’ from the networks, and it was too long to be YouTube sensation. Eastwood was not profound in the way that Rice was, but he just as clearly generated the most debate among aficionados, and this time YouTube could do what the networks did not, and show his presentation in its entirety to a huge audience. Romney was not ultimately in either class, as rhetoric or as entertainment. What he did do was touch all the bases, with a strong crescendo toward the end.
Yet even as this observer listened to these three, and more than forty others over three days—one is reminded of the old adage that the mind can only absorb what the hindquarters can stand—he had to wonder whether others were seeing a) all the oratory that I am dubbing prize-winning, b) Romney’s full speech and excerpts from the other two, or c) Romney’s address and references to the others. In the hall, it was easy to see that all three were major crowd-pleasers. Rice visited the Wisconsin breakfast the morning after her speech, and her arrival brought members instantly to their feet, in the big response of the morning. The mere mention of her name had a reliably strong effect on the audience in the hall that evening. Eastwood was a late addition to the program, a fact that helped fuel the situation whereby he rivaled Mitt Romney in crowd anticipation.
In the hall, the Romney’s triumph was substantial, though this is another dramatic case where the on-site/off-site division is critical: Did you see what I am about to discuss? Ann Romney had begun the ‘softening up process’ very successfully on Tuesday evening. From the age of sixteen, Mitt had made her laugh. He was staggered but did not falter through her diagnosis of MS, then breast cancer. Yet Thursday night went far beyond softening up, and over into pulverizing.
- We heard from fellow church members about Mitt’s personal humanitarian service, wherein not just his resources but also his time were invested—and we heard, very movingly from the beneficiaries as well. They were not professional speakers.
- We heard, really for the first time, about the creation (and hence the rehabilitation) of Bain Capital Management. The Romney version was that they had taken faltering companies, lots of them, and saved many. Those that were not salvageable constitute the examples for the Democratic interpretation of Bain—and of Romney’s alleged lack of compassion. But the delegates heard from those that had been salvaged. They were earnest and thankful, and their stories reinforced the contrary narrative, of an incumbent President who had never created any jobs, while deriding the success of those who had.
- We heard about the Olympic debacle and turnaround, despite the fact that the disaster was far greater than Mitt Romney expected when he accepted the job, and we heard the human side from the Olympians themselves, crystalized most movingly in their concern for the World Trade Center banner commemorating 9-11. The hall began to rock with those “USA, USA” chants, and they were brought back spontaneously at every opportunity thereafter.
- And we heard, of course, how Romney had turned around not just the Olympics but the state of Massachusetts, from a three billion dollar deficit to a one billion dollar rainy day fund. In the process, we heard how he was devoted to moving more women into senior positions in state government.
I walk through that enumeration because I suspect that you will not have heard any of it. Almost surely, you did not. Yet for the hall, two points are relevant. In the first and lesser point, the acceptance speech was easily sufficient to bring all of this together for those in the hall. But in the second and larger point, look what had thereby occurred. At the beginning of the week, Mitt Romney was the winner of the nominating contest, the man who had outlasted all those temporary spikes in public preference: for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. He was the good, gray, plastic inheritor. The delegates surely wanted to win and unhorse the President, and Mitt Romney was the vehicle for doing so. But that was all.
By the end of the week, the delegates had not just been sold the fighting theme. They were spoiling for a fight. The President had failed, and he had failed in an evil way: he attacked success and derided hard work—“you didn’t build it”. But it was now much more than that. Those in the hall had, by and large, also bought the Romney portrait. He was no longer an ‘adequate vehicle’. He was now the man who really could take down the President. He was compassionate, but he was also hard-working and successful. He loved Americans, and he knew how to let America get back to getting on with their lives.
In the process, of course, he had closed the deal on the referendum. The contest, in the Republican frame, was about whether you wanted four more years of the same, or not. It was about jobs and growth. It was not about social issues; they were truly absent. It was a one-dimensional presentation: the referendum was on economic management, pure and simple. To the extent that other matters were worth even a mention, they were melded into this. “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans, and begin to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
This was a triumph inside the hall. All well and good. The question was how much of it had reached—and resonated—outside. In their specifics, the answer is surely ‘little or none’. Romney the humanitarian, Bain the salvager, grateful Olympians, and women in public office: these cannot have gotten more than a passing reference from network commentators, at best. C-SPAN viewers could have seen it all. No viewer of the major television networks could have seen, I suspect, any. So even committed Republicans on the outside could not have been fired up in the way of those on the scene. This is the disjunction between on-site and off-site, between hall and home, at some of its most stark. It is, however, not quite the full story.
The possibility remains that actual snippets from the convention—of personal beneficiaries or grateful Olympians, for example—may reappear in campaign ads over the On the other hand, if these same themes appear in ads that do not use convention snippets, though these can hardly be argued to be ‘convention fallout’. The same motivation that produced them for the convention would likely have produced them for the campaign, even if Hurricane Isaac had killed off the whole gathering and not just one day. Regardless, even truncated by a whole day, with each existing day further truncated by coverage patterns from the major television networks, this was the biggest and richest introduction to Mitt Romney to the general public so far. For many of them, it was an introduction from square one.
Polls afterward suggested two things. First, the ‘bump’ or ‘bounce’ from the convention, that is, the change in Romney’s public standing from before to after, was modest, and only modestly varied from pollster to pollster. But second, one reason that it was modest—not a reason why supporters should not hope for more, but a reason why the potential was limited—was that almost all of these polls now showed the two candidates in a dead heat. A tour of Real Clear Politics this morning does not show a single major before-and-after poll with the lead outside the technical margin of polling error. Which in some ways only ups the ante for the Democratic Convention to follow.
The Beginning of Comparison
The beginning of actual comparisons arrives with ‘the incredible shrinking convention’, revisited. We looked at this last week, when the Republicans deliberately cut their convention to three days. Recall that they had done so in 2008 as well, and both conventions were putatively truncated because of hurricanes. Moreover, both hurricanes, Gustav in 2008 and Isaac in 2012, were in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet while the Republican Convention of 2012 was on the Gulf, the Republican Convention of 2008 was actually in Minneapolis-St. Paul. So it was public relations (and associated, potential, opposition theatrics) that really deep-sixed the first day last time. In a sense—Which I regard as institutionally consequential but you may not?—the Democrats had already terminated their final day last time by moving it to a vast outdoor arena, having nothing to do with the convention hall and completely marginalizing the official delegates. They have done the same thing in 2012, though the morning news says that they are now scrambling to bring in busloads of college students, out of fear that Bank of America Stadium will not fill (with consequent, unfortunate, opposition theatrics).
Yet the Democrats have also deep-sixed Monday, today, as an official session. The surface rationale is that this would become a day of service, with Democratic delegates and alternates directly (as well as symbolically!) serving their publics. The main event for this, at least in New Jersey where I am headquartered, was an event organized by Craftsman Tools, which involved the building of a house for a returning veteran. Heroes at Home, Rebuilding Together, and Next Gen Home/Champion Builders are teamed up with Craftsman, and Ty Pennington, former host of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, led the crews. A bus left the New Jersey Hotel (the Renaissance Suites) at 10:00 this morning, for a forty-five-minute New Jersey contribution at 11:00. I ran into the returning crew from New Jersey in Charlotte, just as I ran into the returning crew from Wisconsin in Tampa.
But the point with relevance to the convention as an institution is that the two activities were precisely the same. Yet they served as (partial) justification for cancelling Monday in Charlotte, while they were just another activity that delegates were urged to consider in Tampa, especially since this particular activity did not interfere with delegate participation in the formal session of the convention that same evening. Did the Democrats see no need for the Monday session? Had the networks already said that they would no longer cover Monday, so that the Democrats (therefore) had no need? Did the cancelling of the Monday session by the Democrats lead the networks to refuse to cover Monday for the Republicans? I have no inside information to sort that one out. What I can repeat is that the Democratic Convention of 2012 was effectively down to two days, with no apparent complaint from anyone.
Then comes a reprise on what appeared last week as the very first of observations that any analyst can have on the convention hall itself, namely a distinction between ‘imperial’ and ‘folksy’ podium choice. But where I judged that the Republicans had moved away from the folksy approach of 2008, with its candidate runway down the center of the hall, and thus back toward the imperial set-up, a visit to Time Warner Cable Arena this morning demonstrates that the Democrats remain far more imperial. The podium for the Democratic Convention of 2012, even apart from the arrangements in Bank of America Stadium (which are almost inescapably imperial), moves far over in that direction. The speakers platform is much farther off the floor of the hall than were the Republicans in Tampa. And unlike the Republicans, who softened this design by having cascading steps down to the floor on three sides, the Democrats will feature—every reader can see this tomorrow—no such softening. All three sides are far above the convention floor.
The other thing that was easily recognizable from a visit to the hall this morning, and which may not be as easily visualized by those watching at home, is the strategy of locating the state delegations on the floor. The Time Warner Cable Arena is a small hall, which itself presents multiple difficulties for the Democratic Convention. These are then exaggerated by the fact that the number of delegates and alternates is much, much larger for the Democrats than the Republicans. One immediate result is that the floor, the first level, and the second level must all be reserved for official delegate seating, leaving only the fourth level for guests. A second result is that the siting of delegations within these confines acquires even more strategic bite than it might otherwise have.
The New Jersey delegates with whom I had breakfast were well aware of this, wondering explicitly where they would be seated and expressing pessimistic views about their probable location. When they get to the hall tomorrow, they will likely feel that their pessimism was justified. There are two very predictable delegation seatings, in the first and second slots to the right of the podium as you look out from it: Delaware, home of the Vice President, and Illinois, home of the President. Otherwise, the floor at the Democratic Convention is pretty close to a tour of battleground states. Colorado, Iowa Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia are all there. (And Florida has a good vantage on the second level.) Conversely, the far reaches of delegate seating, that third level, contains safe Democratic states (Maryland, New York, and—yes—New Jersey), plus states that are safe for the other side (Alabama, Idaho, North Dakota).
In any case, there is a mini-introduction to the Democratic Convention, before any speaker has addressed the hall and before any delegation has set foot on it, to listen to said speakers. I shall return tomorrow, with the grand—if tricky—framework for thinking about the relationship between the general public, the active party, and the convention leadership. Tomorrow evening will then begin to tell us what is being poured into that framework by the 2012 Democrats.