Tradition holds that it is only now, with the Republican and Democratic party conventions over, that voters will actually begin to focus on the choices before them and the campaigns will, therefore, begin in earnest.
In realty, however, this year is different. Voters have been paying attention and a substantial percentage claim to have already made up their minds. Most polls are showing this election to be a dead heat, with the candidates tied or separated by just one percentage point. Many of the ten to fifteen percent of voters who still claim to be undecided, in all likelihood, will not vote. And so this election may not be decided by winning over undecided "swing voters" as much as it will be determined by the candidate who best energizes and mobilizes his party’s faithful. That will be a major focus of the campaign, as it was of the just completed conventions.
Party conventions were once the scenes of high drama. Delegates would go to the quadrennial meeting in order to decide on the nominee and to debate the platform. That is not the case today. Instead, conventions have become scripted media events where the images of the candidates are defined, their messages are projected, and if the convention is successful, the faithful are inspired and energized.
President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney both faced somewhat similar challenges in their respective conventions. Romney had to "close the deal" with his party’s Conservative base, who did not trust his commitment to Conservative principles, and better define himself as a "regular guy" for Republican-leaning independent voters, who could not identify with his "rich man" image. He relied on his running mate to accomplish the first objective, and his wife to achieve the second. To an extent, both succeeded, at least with the party loyalists.
President Obama also had to "close a deal" with his supporters. He had to address the disappointment of some with the fact that he had not been able to live up to the overly high expectations that ushered in his Presidency. He had to make a convincing argument as to why he deserved another term in which to solve problems still plaguing the United States. Relying his own oratorical skills would not be enough. And so the President called on former President Clinton, "rising star" Elizabeth Warren, a Senate candidate in Massachusetts, and Biden to validate the claim that his approach is working and then ask for another term to finish the work he had started.
It was these around themes that both conventions were structured. At the GOP affair, speakers upbraided President Obama for not creating jobs, saying that he had no idea how the economy worked. They argued that the reason for his failure was that he relied on government instead of individual initiative.
At the Democratic convention, on the other hand, speaker after speaker told stories of how their lives had improved because of the policies implemented by the Administration: jobs saved, health care delivered, education more affordable, women’s rights protected, businesses started, and soldiers now home from Iraq and employed or going to school.
A repeating theme was the contrasting philosophies of the standard bearers of the Democratic and Republican parties with: Obama believing that government can play an important role boosting the economy when it was required to do so and lifting up those who need a helping hand; and Romney believing that government should get out of the way of people so that the initiative of enterprising individuals could be freed to grow the economy.
The GOP Convention’s message scripting was abbreviated for one fill day by Hurricane Isaac, and disrupted, at times by disgruntled supporters of Ron Paul who lost votes in the Rules and Platform Committees. There was also the distraction of so many Republican "rising stars" whose speeches focused more on themselves than on the candidate, Mitt Romney, they were supposed to be validating. The Convention also shot itself in the foot with a bizarre, unscripted appearance by actor Clint Eastwood, whose "performance" coming right before Romney was to deliver his acceptance speech, and threatened to overshadow or at least provide an unwanted distraction from the goals for the Convention, set by the campaign.
The Democratic Convention, on the other hand, had only one self-inflicted wound and that was the ham-fisted manner in which the Convention leadership steam-rolled a change in the platform, after it had already been approved. The language they added in an effort to pander to supporters of Israel was phrased in a way to be virtually meaningless. The upset was not so much with the language itself, as it was with the heavy-handed approach used to insert it.
The economy was the main focus of conversation at both conventions, with the only real primetime focus given to foreign policy being the dueling addresses given by Senator John McCain (at the Republican convention) and Senator John Kerry (at the Democratic Convention). They differed like night and day, with Kerry presenting a portrait of President Obama as a tough and decisive leader, who while strong enough to get Bin Laden and continue to fight al Qaeda, remains supportive of engagement, diplomacy, and steps to improve America’s image around the world. McCain, on the other hand, was irascible and hawkish. Using the language of his neo-Conservative advisers, McCain criticized the President for betraying allies and not doing enough militarily confront Syria and Iran.
The Conventions ended with both party’s delegates and activists energized and ready to work. It that sense, both meetings were a success. There are now less than two months to go before the election. It will be hectic, heated, and more partisan than usual.
On to November.