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Evans

Conventions Still Important

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Aug 25, 2008

Even though a convention has not chosen a nominee since 1968, conventions remain important because they set the tone, strategy, and message of the general election. As we begin the convention season, here are some ways to judge the success of the conventions.

First, does the vice president nominee offset the nominee’s weaknesses, contribute to the candidate’s message, and/or heal party wounds? For John McCain, a reform oriented conservative would help distance the party from President Bush while someone with domestic policy credentials would balance McCain’s foreign policy expertise. For Barack Obama, a foreign policy expert or a candidate who embodies change is best.

Second, are the nominees able to successfully reintroduce themselves to voters? Campaigns and attacks from opponents help create public and media narratives that explain the candidate and his positions. Fortunately, most voters are only now starting to pay close attention. Consequently, campaigns can relaunch their candidates and replace previous, potentially damaging, narratives with a more positive, compelling one.

For Democrats, they must overcome concerns over Obama’s elitism, inexperience, and race by promoting someone who embodies the American Dream and has the judgment, intelligence, and political skill to bring “change” to American politics. Republicans must separate McCain from Bush, overcome conservative skepticism, and negate doubts about McCain’s age to present an American hero who is an experienced, bipartisan leader who can keep us safe and solve America’s domestic problems.

Third, can the candidates successfully reposition and reprioritize their issues to appeal to the centrist voters that will decide the election? Primary voters are more ideological and partisan and so candidates must emphasize core party and ideological issues to win the nomination. However, general election voters are more centrist so strategic politicians emphasize different issues to court them. Thus, McCain talks about tackling climate change and drilling for oil to lower gas prices while Obama supports Bush’s wiretapping program and faith based initiative, “refines” his position on Iraq, and supports the Supreme Court overturning the D.C. gun ban. Also, expect both parties play down divisive social issues.

Fourth, are the nominees able to successfully reach out to the supporters of their primary opponents? By granting Hillary and Bill Clinton primetime convention speeches, allowing Hillary’s name to be placed in nomination, and granting Clinton certain platform requests, Obama is showing respect for Clinton’s issues and supporters making it easier to heal campaign wounds. Moreover, Obama’s overtures means the Clintons and their supporters must respond with support or risk damaging their political futures.

McCain has been the presumptive nominee for much longer and has been working to mend ties with conservatives. His support for making the Bush tax cuts permanent heartens economic conservatives while his recent comments at the Saddleback Forum with Rick Warren and the realization of the consequences of an Obama presidency for abortion and homosexual rights are rallying social conservatives.

Fifth, are the parties able to mobilize the faithful? Conventions are a giant pep rally designed to mobilize activists, inside and outside the convention hall. The speeches that attack their opponent strikes fear in activists by highlighting the consequences of the other party winning. And the adoration of their nominee and his policies creates a vision worth fighting for. Together, they produce the energy to register voters, go door-to-door, put up signs, work in phone banks, and take voters to the polls.

For both McCain and Obama, this is important because the core of the campaign activists of both parties, social conservatives for Republicans and working class voters for Democrats, supported other candidates during the primary campaign.

So while conventions are more marketing than decision making, we need to remember that conventions kick off campaigns by framing the electoral choice (change v status quo or experience v inexperience in a complex world), creating a leadership image, and exciting the party and public. The candidate with the more successful convention gets a bounce in the polls and comes that much closer to the White House.

Oringally appeared in the Jackson Sun on August 22