Next week’s Republican convention marks the real start of the presidential campaigns. That’s when voters typically start paying attention to the election and assessing the candidates and the issues for the ten weeks or so that follow.
Over the last decade, however, as news cycles shrank from days to hours to minutes in the Internet era, campaigns have become increasingly active in what used to be the respite between the primaries and the conventions. Barack Obama’s campaign alone spent $120 million over the summer, mainly on ads, more than general election campaigns spent in the fall until Obama opted out of federal matching funds in the 2008 election.
That may make conventions a little less important than in the past. As recently as 1988, candidates could count on a big polling bump thanks to blanket coverage from the broadcast networks and the ability to put on a big show. In 1992, analysts believed that the speech by primary challenger Pat Buchanan damaged incumbent President George H. W. Bush badly enough to allow Bill Clinton to win a three-way race with only 43 percent of the vote. Today, though, C-SPAN will provide the only significant coverage of the conventions, and voters can remain engaged through the explosion of information outlets available on cable and the Internet. That may tend to dilute the impact of conventions, and is a key reason why candidates and parties no longer take that summer siesta.
That doesn’t mean that conventions can’t have an impact on the fortunes of presidential candidates. Both parties and candidates need to calculate carefully their approach to maximize their potential while avoiding the pitfalls that serious missteps on the most high profile of venues can produce.
Republicans hold their convention first this year, which means that they will set the tone for what follows, especially since voters may well tire of convention coverage by the time Barack Obama delivers his acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, the day after Labor Day. A smooth convention could mean a significant head start on Obama in the general election, while a stumble might have voters leery of changing horses midstream. Republicans and the Romney campaign need to keep four principles in mind for a successful convention next week:
Message discipline – If there was any benefit to the Todd Akin fiasco in Missouri this week, it comes as a reminder to insist on message discipline in Tampa, Florida. The issues that voters care most about in poll after poll this cycle are the economy, job creation, and federal budget deficits that will once again exceed a trillion dollars for the fourth year in a row. Providentially, the Republican ticket has an enormous level of credibility on these issues, with Mitt Romney’s long track record of private-sector success and Paul Ryan’s record of offering specific budgetary reform.
Republicans have an opportunity to speak directly to voters on these issues, which will also highlight how the Obama campaign has avoided addressing them at all. That means that Romney and Ryan will need to be specific enough to emphasize that they have a plan to fix the economy, without getting into a 59-point presentation. Concepts and principles should dominate their presentations.
At the same time, organizers should insist that speakers support the focus on economics and budgetary issues. If the convention speakers begin drifting away from these core issues, especially on social issues after the controversy over Akin’s remarks, it plays directly into the distraction strategy of Democrats -- and will have the media talking about nothing else.
Focus on the future – Conventions like to use the backdrop of past party successes in order to paint their presidential nominees as a continuation of a glorious history. That would be a mistake for the Republican convention. The energy on the Right comes from the Tea Party and other grassroots movements, which have large issues with the recent past of the GOP.
Instead, Romney should be hailed as the vanguard of a new Republican approach to policy and politics, a strategy that Ryan’s presence will enhance. While stalwarts of the past will speak at the convention – previous nominee John McCain deserves a spot for his 2008 efforts – the focus should be on the party’s future: Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, for examples.
Inspire voters – Conventions are supposed to get voters excited about the party and its candidates. Increasing sophistication and freer information access makes that more difficult, but it still matters. People need to feel inspired to vote for someone rather than against the other. Mitt Romney needs to deliver this himself, with support from other key speakers. Chris Christie will get the convention off to a rousing start with the official keynote speech, but Romney has to set the tone at the end. A dry exposition on the failings of Barack Obama won’t be sufficient; this is the time for transcendent oratory.
Humanize the nominees – This could be the key to the election. Barack Obama and his campaign have spent the summer trying to make people afraid of Mitt Romney, and recently of Paul Ryan. Obama and his allies have done nearly everything they can, including implying that Romney may be a felon and is responsible for the death by cancer of a woman. Each day should feature a speaker or a presentation that humanizes Romney, and the material is available. Romney’s effort to search for the missing daughter of an employee, his rescue of a drowning man, and his usually quiet efforts to help families in need are stories that voters need to hear.
The convention has to recognize that there’s a thin line between humanizing Romney and idolizing him, but the summer’s attacks on his character demand a robust rebuttal. If successful, not only will voters fear Romney much less as an alternative to Obama, they may be inclined to grow angry if Democratic attempts at character assassination continue at their convention the following week.
The next week will be critical for Romney and the GOP. If Republicans can successfully execute these strategies, they will not only boost their chances for success in November, they will also put more pressure on Democrats to address issues the following week they’d like to avoid.