What the Conventions Told Us
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 8, 2012
Just as one's character gives insight into the kind of person one is, the political conventions provide insight into our politics. The conventions over the past two weeks tells us three things: these were tofu conventions, character is king, and this is a base election.
First, we witnessed the first tofu conventions as the past two weeks were devoid of policy. Watching the two conventions, I was reminded of the old Wendy's commercial when the old lady orders a hamburger, is given a huge bun with a small hamburger and asks "where's the beef?" Well, policy is the "beef" of American politics. It is what we chew over and digest before we decide how to solve our problems. Yet, the conventions and primtetime speeches were largely silent on how to solve our problems. Watching these conventions, you might think that the economy is not struggling, the deficit and debt are not weighing down our future, entitlements are not bankrupting the nation, our schools are not teaching our students the skills they need, and social mobility is become more difficult.
I, and I guess many others, think that conventions are important in introducing the candidates and providing a vision but those biographies and visions are meaningless if you do not have policies to achieve your goals. At the Republican convention, Mitt Romney mentioned a five point plan to create 5 million new jobs with very little mention of how to do it. At the Democratic Convention, President Obama mentioned six goals for his second term with very little about how to do it. If you can go to their websites, you can find the same general pledges with very little specifics.
Now some may argue that speeches are not the place to lay out your policies and explain why they would work. But past acceptance speeches tell a different story. In 2008, Obama made 12 policy pledges and McCain 11 pledges. While they did not go into great depth, they did attempt to explain how they would make our lives better and they were backed up with policies on websites and many times books. In 2004, President Bush and John Kerry made 18 policy pledges. President Bush even referred people to his website for more information.
What makes this even more problematic is that the parties actually know what they would do if elected. Neither party will tell you because they do not want to be attacked for their plans. Therefore, they continue to convince you that there will be easy choices by not telling us the real truth. Leadership requires politicians to lay out the stakes, the options, and the consequences so voters can realize the costs, weigh the evidence, and be prepared to make the difficult decisions. Our leaders have failed us in this regard in both parties.
Second, the conventions tell us character is king. In the 1990s during the Lewinsky affair, many people said that personal character does not matter in evaluating politicians. This belief was readily summed up with it's "Dow Jones not Paula Jones" that matters. These conventions and this campaign says otherwise. For the past few months, Democrats have run ads saying that Romney is a heartless businessman who cannot be trusted with power in government. As a result, most of the GOP convention was meant to tell a story of a caring, empathatic Romney. Ann and Mitt Romney's speeches did this especially well. Even in the Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama and Joe Biden testified to Obama's character in the decisions that he made and that we should trust him.
Character is important for several reasons. First, we give tremendous power to presidents because of their power to send people to war and because of the impact their policies will have to hurt all of us, especially the disadvantaged. We do not want them to abuse their power or choose to benefit privaste interests over the public interest. With a large deficit and debt that must be reigned in and an economy struggling, the next president will make decisions regarding Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and who wins and loses in the economy and as a result of government policy. Because they know this, and we know it implicitly, they try to convince us that they are like us and understand us so we will trust them to make these difficult decisions.
Second, we are in the midst of what Mark Halperin calls the "freak show." In this polarized age, we do not say that our opponent's policies are wrong but that they are wrong due to a moral defect. We see this with attacks on Clinton's character, assertions that Bush invaded Iraq to get their oil or avenge possible attacks on his dad, and claims that Obama was not born in the U.S. and is a muslim. The politics of personal destruction is meant not just to tar a person but their belief system. Consequently, politicians must spend substantial time defending their character to ward off attacks. The focus on attacks also means that politicians can put off the hard choices of their inaction.
Third, the conventions demonstrated that this is a base election. The old adage is that candidates run for the ideological extremes in the primary and then move to the center in the general election. These conventions have appealed very little to the independent voter but instead have been aimed at mobilizing the base. If you are wondering where the beef is, it is in the red meat that the convention speakers gave their base. Both sides contrasted their visions and candidates with each other and made straw man arguments to show the other side is wrong. The issues that they did bring up and designed to motivate their base. Anyone who watched the non-network televised sessions of the conventions could see this. Just this past week, you saw the Democrats use abortion, voter identification, gay rights, health care, attacks on the wealthy, etc. to fire up their base. If most centrists saw that, they would have been repelled by the convention.
The truth is that there are very few independents left. Most independents lean toward one party or the other and those independent leaners vote in very partisan manners. Therefore, both parties can win if they get more of their voters to the polls than the other party. This strategy leads campaigns to give their voters red meat to drive out their base. And as research shows, negative ads motivate partisans to vote. With so few true independent who actually vote, the incentive is to tear down the opposition so your people vote against the opponent rather than for you.
The bad news for the Republicans is that Democrats seemed more fired up at their convention.The Republicans just seemed to be excited during the primetime hour shown on tv. The Democrats were excited throughout the entire evening schedule. Whether this is because Republicans are more reserved than Democrats or because Democrats love Obama and Republicans accept Romney, it seems clear that Democrats in the convention hall were more excited. If we extrapolate this to Democratic activists, then they may be more motivated to go out and work hard to elect Democrats. If this is a truly "base" election, Democrats have the advantage.