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Think Political Conventions Don’t Matter? Think Again!

With an incumbent guaranteed renomination, will the Charlotte convention this summer matter?

With an incumbent guaranteed renomination, will the Charlotte convention this summer matter?

Despite what many think, national political conventions craft a message and can have significant impact on elections and policy. Who can forget John McCain’s introduction of Sarah Palin in St. Paul on Sept. 3, 2008? It was, at first, in that bright moment, the game changer that Republicans were hoping for. Just a few weeks later, with non-answers to Katie Couric about books and court cases, that initial decision became a serious negative and Palin never recovered. The un-vetted way McCain made his VP decision, required to be timed for the convention, cost him and his party dearly.

Perhaps the most negative impact from a convention was on July 14, 1972, when nominee George McGovern gave his acceptance speech at 2 in the morning. Nobody at home was up to hear the speech on TV, and the Democratic Party was left with no unifying message. They never recovered. Loss of the usual “bounce” was one reason McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts.

Another convention event that had major impact was Bill Clinton’s July 1988 speech nominating Michael Dukakis. He spoke for 34 minutes that seemed like an hour. Bored, everybody broke into a din of talk over him. Delegates applauded the end of the speech – not its content. Tom Brokaw saw Clinton the next day and both shared verbal frowns; they both knew it was that bad. Many eventually grew to love President Clinton and his brilliance, but it took years for the future president to reestablish his reputation as a public speaker. Now he has no peer, proof one can learn.

The party convention platform offers opportunities for controversy and news stories. Republicans have a history of inserting opposition to women’s choice and cost themselves five points in the polls. When 99 percent of women use some form of contraception, opposition to it is hardly a winning issue regardless of party. Conversely, Democrats have routinely inserted gay rights issues into their platform. Until now, it has not mattered much, evidenced by the fact that 31 out of 31 states that have put the question of equal protection of sexual orientation to a popular vote have outright rejected the notion. Now, with President Barack Obama’s leadership position on the issue, polls are shifting. For the first time, a majority support gay marriage.

Everett Dirksen’s speech nominating Barry Goldwater (July 16, 1964) at the Republican convention in San Francisco reinvigorated the American conservative movement. Dirksen’s unique rhetorical masterpiece recast his party’s direction and launched their candidate’s nomination by calling for “Courage, conscience, competence, contribution.”

Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008 was played around the world, and his keynote address in 2004 was where he first established himself as a post-racial candidate who bridged demographic gaps and displayed masterful rhetorical style. In 2004, Obama lifted the delegates and Americans everywhere to their highest aspirations. The statement, “There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America,” electrified the delegates and became the making of a president. He needs to do it again in Charlotte.

Convention location counts. The Democrats’ convention in the swing state of Colorado in 2008 made a difference in that state’s going for Obama. It’s certainly possible that holding the convention in Charlotte in 2012 will make a similar difference. The speeches and publicity for the Democrats’ point of view will get greater airing in the state during the convention.

Sometimes parties don’t learn how important a convention can be, and they suffer. The Republicans could be setting themselves up for another 1964 Goldwater-like “Extremism … is no vice … Moderation is no virtue!” moment in the current election year. This tactic helped lose the general election for Republicans in 1964, but is eerily similar to today’s tone, epitomized by Sen. Richard Mourdock’s, R-Ind., radical redefinition of bipartisanship: “Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

While conventions are by definition partisan, they also are patriotic events. Both parties want to improve the country. Before Charlotte and Tampa begin their rituals, one hopes the message of both is that governing is a public service, not a party loyalty test, and that compromise is not a dirty word. Whoever provides those messages at their convention and inspires, while all the world is watching, just might win the election.