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Evans

Party Convention Could Be a Pivot Point

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Aug 31, 2012

While party conventions are no longer consequential to selecting nominees, conventions still play an important role in the campaign.  As we transition from the Republican to the Democratic convention, here are some metrics to judge the success of both conventions.

First, will voters consider Mitt Romney an acceptable alternative? After three-and-a-half years, most people are dissatisfied with President Obama’s leadership but unconvinced Romney is the answer. This uneasiness is a combination of Democratic ads demonizing Romney and Romney not trying to define himself.  The good news for Romney is that many people have not paid much attention and he can use the convention to reintroduce himself to voters as a problem solver at Bain Capital, the 2002 Winter Olympics, and the Massachusetts Governorship to show he is better suited to fix the economy.

At the same time, Ann Romney and others will tell stories to make Romney more likeable and empathetic by humanizing him as the family man, caring church leader, and Good Samaritan.

Meanwhile, Democrats will continue to define Romney as unprincipled, aloof, heartless businessman.  Moreover, they will attempt to use Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as Vice President to tie him to unpopular Congressional Republicans and paint Romney as an extremist who threatens the social safety net.

In the end, Romney doesn’t have to be the most well-liked candidate. As the Republican primary demonstrated, Romney just needs to be acceptable.

Second, whose base will leave the convention more fired up? This election is primarily a base election as the electorate is so closely divided between the parties.   In our polarized political environment, a party can win if more of their partisans show up on election day. Thus, both parties will throw their supporters red meat to mobilize activists to work hard to insure a high turnout.

Third, whose party will appeal to swing voters more?  According to a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation poll, only 5% of voters are truly independent and only a quarter of those will probably vote. But in a close election, that small group matters. Will Republicans be able to make Obama’s performance the issue while not scaring off these independents over spending cuts and Medicare reform? Will Democrats be able to emphasize popular aspects of their proposals like education spending and ending pre-existing conditions for insurance without the baggage associated with the health insurance mandate and large deficits?

Fourth, will Obama regain the magic of 2008 and remind voters why they fell in love with him originally? So far, Obama has replaced hope and change with fear and loathing and turned from a uniter into a divider. Can he regain his “postpartisan” reputation to appeal to those swing voters who truly believe in bipartisanship? Can he reenergize Latinos upset about his deportations and idealistic young people turned off by his partisanship so they vote in equal numbers this year as they did in 2008?

Finally, can Romney survive next week’s attacks and prolong his convention bounce? The challenger is less well-known which means he has the greater potential to grow his support. But he is also less well-defined and can be defined by his opponent. If Romney is tied with Obama or slightly ahead by mid-September, he survived and is in good shape heading toward the election. If not, Romney’s road to victory becomes more difficult.

This column originally appeared in the Aug. 31 edition of The Jackson Sun