Presidential party conventions used to be filled with intrigue and suspense, as party leaders gathered to decide which candidate would be the party standard bearer. No longer. Rather than a means of choosing a party’s nominee, conventions now serve as the opening salvo in the general election. The nominees are already known. Conventions today thus lack the unscripted atmosphere associated with conventions of yesteryear, with their deal making in smoked-filled back rooms, but they are no less important for the party’s future. Conventions today are elaborately scripted productions, with every speech and event choreographed to focus on the dominant theme. Little is left to chance.
With this background, what must the Democratic convention accomplish?
The primary purpose must be to humanize Barack Obama. Most of you who have been reading these posts are invested in this election, and have been following the contest since the beginning of the nominating process. Keep in mind, however, that most Americans are only now beginning to pay attention to the presidential campaign. In this respect, the party convention is an opportunity for Obama to create a favorable and lasting first impression with the vast majority of American voters. Make no mistake, the single biggest campaign factor that Obama can control that will influence this election is how he comes across to the median American voter. He needs to convince Americans that he can be trusted as president, and to do that he must, in part, demonstrate that he understands them. There is a huge degree of uncertainty about Obama. To have a successful convention, then, Democrats must start the process of humanizing Obama while also convincing Americans that he can be trusted to lead.
Last night was the first step in this process. Rather than watch the convention, I listened on the radio. Obviously the Kennedy speech was emotional but my guess is that its impact will not spill over to influence Americans’ perception of Obama. In contrast, Michelle Obama’s speech was critical. As I listened to her speech, three things stood out:
1. She was careful to give credit to Hillary Clinton, but did so in a way that did not allow Clinton’s delegates to stampede the convention – after acknowledging Clinton’s contribution, she followed immediately by hailing Joe Biden. Look for this to be the strategy through the convention – Obama will provide carefully choreographed moments for the Clinton delegates to vent, but always under controlled conditions.
2. When she begin to talk about her working class roots, her accent subtlety changed.
3. She made certain to mention her love of America – a clear effort to compensate for her much-publicized comment during the primary season.
Last night was nicely choreographed ending just in time for the evening news.
But the biggest hurdle and potential for going off script comes in a few minutes – when Hillary Clinton gives her speech. She’s up next….will she stick to the script? Will her delegates? Stay tuned…
Hillary has just finished. It was a masterful example of misdirection. On one level, she urged unity behind Obama, but in a way that barely masked that she saw this as her moment to validate her own campaign and she was laying the groundwork for another run. It was Hillary’s best stump speech, in effect hitting her campaign themes, but covering herself by remembering periodically to urge support of Obama in the general election – not in terms of his candidacy, but in terms of fulfilling hers. It was really quite impressive and done so subtly that it will be easy for the pundits to miss the main message. I hope you were able to see the wooden expressions on Michelle and Joe Biden’s faces. That said everything.