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Scripted conventions all have goals
BY CHELYEN DAVIS
Political conventions these days are nearly pure theater, aimed at celebrating their own party’s beliefs, scripted—except for perhaps Clint Eastwood—down to the second.
But if they’re theater on a stage, they’re still a stage, one on which presidential candidates have a chance to make their big case for why voters should choose them over the other guy.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used his stage in Tampa Thursday night for a humanizing message, with friends from his church and his work taking the podium to tell personal stories of how Mitt the person helped them in their lives.
University of Mary Washington political analyst Stephen Farnsworth said those speakers gave “more of a sense of who he might be as a person,” something Romney needs.
“The biggest problem that Romney faces in this election is the concern that he doesn’t understand ordinary people, that he’s not enough like ordinary people,” Farnsworth said.
“Polls show huge advantages in terms of likability for [President Barack] Obama, and Romney needs to narrow that gap. For some voters, the presidential election is about choosing someone you think understands your situation.”
Obama has made “very aggressive attacks with respect to Romney’s elite background,” Farnsworth said. While the convention made steps to counter that, Farnsworth said, the challenge will be for Romney to carry that through the rest of the campaign.
“I think the Romney that appears on the campaign trail and in the debates needs to also reflect a more personable presentation,” Farnsworth said.
ROMNEY MESSAGE WORKED
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato was in Tampa for the convention. He said in an email interview that he, too, thinks the Romney campaign made progress in rounding out Romney’s persona for voters.
“Some of the ‘humanizing’ messages got through, despite the media clutter caused by Hurricane Isaac and Hurricane Clint,” Sabato said. “Most voters clearly know more about him now. He is still somewhat distant, but that’s no bar to the presidency. People want to know that he’s the answer for the nation’s main economic problems, and that he’s a solid, dependable sort of person. I think the convention went a long way toward communicating that image.”
Sabato said he expects Romney will see a poll bounce from the campaign, but it remains to be seen how durable it might be.
A couple of Thursday night’s speakers had worked with Romney through his job at Bain Capital—a job which has been a large point of criticism from the Obama campaign.
Those speakers described how involved Romney had been in their business start-ups and how helpful and supportive he was.
Other speakers knew Romney through the Mormon church, and also described his personal support for them in times of difficulty.
“By bringing up Bain and talking about what Bain has accomplished, Romney’s hoping to turn this matter more to his advantage,” Farnsworth said.
DEMS HAVE ‘REBUTTAL’
Farnsworth said voters can expect a similar “family festival” at the Democratic convention this week in Charlotte.
“One of the ways that Obama also presents himself as more like ordinary Americans is through his role as a father of two young daughters,” Farnsworth said.
Expect the economy—and how to fix it—to also be a major thread at the Democratic convention, Sabato said. A positive for Democrats is that they’ve already heard the arguments at the Republican convention, so they can craft their message to directly counter it.
“The advantage of having the second convention is rebuttal,” Sabato said. “And Obama has a lot to rebut. The GOP has thrown down the gauntlet. Republicans say Obama has flat-out failed. Obama can’t credibly claim he’s succeeded, given the overall state of the economy [as opposed to Virginia’s good one], so he has to force voters to shop comparatively. ‘We’re on the right track’ is one part of Obama’s argument; the second is ‘Things will be so much worse if you elect Romney.’
“The second argument isn’t just economic. It leads to a discussion of social issues—women and gays won’t have equality, etc.”
Farnsworth also expects a dual focus from Democrats—painting Romney as a “Gordon Gecko” style capitalist while also playing up social issues that this year are a big deal to Democrats.
SOCIAL ISSUES IMPORTANT
While Republicans put opposition to abortion in their platform—as they routinely do—and protecting life was a regular line in Republicans’ convention speeches, it’s Democrats who this year have made social issues a regular talking point. They have been arguing for months that Republicans’ positions—on abortion, “personhood,” birth control and other social issues—represent a serious threat to women’s rights.
Their argument was only intensified recently when Missouri Republican Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin referred to “legitimate rape.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of an emphasis on divisive conservative social agenda as well,” Farnsworth said. “Every time Congressman Akin opens his mouth, Democrats cheer, and he’s probably said enough already for the Democrats to get a lot more mileage of Republican views on social matters. The Republican party platform is pretty extreme on abortion, in cases of rape for example, and I tend to think the simple math of the Democratic convention on social issues will be Republicans equal Akin.”
In the end, though, Farnsworth said Democrats at their convention will walk the same tightrope as Republicans did—how to give people a reason to vote for their candidate, yet simultaneously “give people a sense of how scary you think it would be if the other side wins.”
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028