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Mixed Messages: Reflections on Day 1 of the GOP Convention

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Aug 29, 2012

Day 1 of the GOP Convention sent a mixed message and that is not good for Republicans.  The goals of the convention are (1) define Mitt Romney as a likable, caring, empathetic figure who understands the plight of everyday people; (2) prove Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan can fix the economy; (3) demonstrate Romney-Ryan is a better alternative than Obama-Biden.  Day 1 failed that test as Republican messaging was all over the place which is problematic in that the convention is competing with Hurricane Isaac.  With the media covering two big events, there will be less time to talk about the convention. The saving grace of the GOP is that the media will focus primarily on Ann Romney's speech which was the best one during the prime time coverage. However, Ann Romney did not sell Mitt like she needed to do. 

Ann Romney's primary goal was to define Mitt Romney as a likable, caring, and empathetic individual so the Democratic attacks that attempt to define Romney as a heartless businessman don't stick.  Even after $110 million in negative advertising against him, a CBS News poll shows that 30% of Americans don't have an opinion of Romney which means the Romney campaign can gain control over his narrative. Ann Romney's speech was a great opportunity to do this. However, I think that she fell short.  While she gave a great speech, she did not personalize Romney enough. She made assertions that Romney is a great guy, you should get to know him, and he will not let you down but she did not tell any stories to demonstrate the qualities she testified to.  The fact that they have a "real marriage" and that he will not brag about helping others is good but I don't know any more about Mitt Romney than before the speech. There is no story about helping her cope with MS or breast cancer, no story about helping others, no story of "moving heaven and earth," no story about his "working harder." In short, there is no story that I or anyone else will remember that humanizes him and will counter Democrats demonizing attacks.  

And the shame of all this is that there are stories that can humanize him whether it is his reaction after a car crash while on his Mormon mission, his temporarily closing down Bain to search for a partner's daughter, his interventions with church members in the Boston area, and many more. I totally understand her point about not receiving his reward on earth for helping people but Republicans need to successfully define Romney or the Democrats will. 

Chris Christie's keynote address continued the mixed message in three ways. First, the address was more about Christie than about Mitt Romney. As most commentators have mentioned, it took Christie almost 20 minutes to mention Mitt Romney.  Even at the end when he called people to "stand up," he called them to stand up with him and not with Mitt Romney. Then throughout the speech, he kept the speech on the abstract level as he contrasted what Republicans believe with what Democrats believe without connecting the beliefs with Romney nor Obama. And after hearing the speech, I am not sure what the GOP would do if elected. I know their principles but I still don't know the policies the party will pursue.  On this level, he failed in goals two and three mentioned earlier.  The keynote address is meant to sell the party and the nominee. Christie's speech sold the party and Chris Christie. 

Second, Ann Romney said that she was going to talk about love then Christie turned around and said that it was better to be respected than loved. To have one speaker contradict the other speaker creates dissonance in the minds of viewers. 

The second way Christie's keynote address mixed the message was in his pairing with Ann Romney at the 9pm hour and the tone. Ann Romney did the soft sell and Christie did the hard sell. Their speeches struck me less as ying and yang complementing each other and more like oil and water not mixing.  Part of this was the different goals of the two speakers and part of it was Christie not focusing on Mitt Romney. But the other major factor is the tone.  If the public is anything like my students, the women zoned Christie out while the guys loved it.  The women gushed about how great Ann Romney is while the guys compared Christie to a pre-game football speech making you want to break through a wall.  With only one hour to reach the nation, half of those watching may have tuned out and that is the half that the party has the most trouble with.  

If you watched the entire proceedings last night, the one consistent message was leadership.  Specifically, Republicans defined leadership as truthfully identifying problems and dealing with them regardless of the political consequences. You saw this with Chris Christie's keynote address but also when the governors spoke. Governors John Kasich (R-OH), Scott Walker (R-WI), and Nikke Haley (R-SC) made convincing cases that they identified a problem and took on the problem regardless of the consequences (and the political consequences for Kasich and Walker were real) by addressing public employee benefits that led to fights against government employee unions, fighting Obama's NLRB board preventing a Boeing plant being built in SC, and addressing illegal immigration when the Administration would not. Even Ann Romney contributed to this theme as she talked about Mitt Romney attending law school and business school at the same time, working hard to build a business, working to save scandal-tarred 2002 Olympics, and his willingness to "move heaven and earth" to improve the country. All these addresses hit an important theme of Obama's "absentee leadership."  The attack would have been more effective if they did a better job of connecting it to national issues, specifically economic issues, that most people are concerned with and connecting with the Obama Administration's failures. 

So while the GOP did not have a great night, the good news is that they have another chance tonight. With Paul Ryan speaking tonight and Mitt Romney tomorrow, they should have a larger tv audience to make their case to elect the Romney-Ryan ticket.