There has been much talk lately that political conventions are outdated and no longer serve a purpose. Some argue that a political convention is nothing but a giant party for the donors and political operatives. Actually it is much more than that. A political convention is the greatest public relations event that a presidential campaign can have besides the debates. The tempo of the convention along with the speeches at the convention defines a candidate and the campaign.
Think back to past political conventions. In 1972, the Democratic Convention was so unruly and disruptive with the new politics of the age on display that millions of viewers tuned out the Party believing that its candidate, George McGovern, was so out of mainstream and not worth listening to. Indeed when McGovern finally spoke it was prime time in Guam. The convention and its pictures doomed what little chance McGovern had of victory. In contrast the Republican Convention that year seemed like a well oiled machine with delegates that looked right out of Middle America. In 1980, Ronald Reagan and the Republicans presented an image of unity and openness. Reagan in his acceptance speech introduced himself to the American people with a speech of optimism and vision, daring even to quote Franklin Roosevelt (a longtime nemesis of Republicans) in glowing terms. Democrats that year appeared dispirited and lackluster with Jimmy Carter giving a speech that was a laundry list of government programs and referring to the late Democrat icon, Hubert Humphrey as “Hubert Horatio Hornblower, uh Humphrey.” We know how the campaign ended. Likewise in 2000, Al Gore used his speech to reintroduce himself to Americans and made a race of the campaign until the debates and Florida. John Kerry, on the other hand, missed an opportunity to define the race as a contrast and flubbed on his acceptance speech.
The Republican Convention in Tampa has already been plagued by bad luck with Isaac forcing one night of the convention to be cancelled. The nightmare of Republicans is the storm barreling into New Orleans and conjuring up memories of Katrina and the Bush Administration’s response. Yet another fear of Republicans is that the news media will show a split television screen of the convention and Isaac wreaking disaster. Despite these worries, the convention like any other convention offers an opportunity for Romney. What must he do from a public relations angle?
Mitt Romney has been on the national stage since he ran for Senate in 1994 against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. He started out as a liberal Republican and then evolved to a moderate Republican and now calls himself a strong conservative. Voters along the way know he comes from a famous Republican family – his father was Michigan Governor George Romney (who JFK feared as an opponent in 1964 and later flamed out when he had run in 1968 against Richard Nixon) and was a successful businessman. Yet beyond that voters know very little of Mitt Romney, the man. Previous nominees were known to voters long before their nomination. Reagan was known as Mr. Conservative, an actor, less taxes, and anti-communism. Clinton was known for his personal dalliances and political skills. George W. Bush known for Christian beliefs and Texas swagger. Yet to many Americans, Mitt Romney remains an enigma. Voters feel that they don’t know the man. Part of this is because unlike other campaigns, Romney’s never ran the soft biographical advertisements to introduce himself to voters; rather they ran slashing negative ads against his opponents. So the convention must fill in those blanks by defining his life experiences and what has made him as a person. His acceptance speech gives him his last opportunity to define himself to voters. If he doesn’t the Democrats will.
The second and last thing he must do is define his vision of America. Elections are not won by saying you are not your opponent. If they were, Michael Dukakis would have been elected in 1988. Americans especially now want a vision for the future. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were elected over incumbent presidents by articulating a vision of where they would take America. Even George H.W. Bush, a candidate who struggled with vision and eloquence outlined a vision in 1988. For Romney it is not enough to say he isn’t Obama. Other speakers at the convention must make out the case against Obama and then Mitt Romney must make the case for a better America with his vision. Just as FDR, JFK, Reagan, and others defined what they wanted to do with America in their convention speeches, so must Romney.
Yes, conventions do matter. They set the course of a campaign. They define a candidate and Party. The Republican Convention and Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech will define this election. The question is will he be a Romney Rambler or Ford Edsel?