Each party convention usually produces a bounce in the polls of 6-10 points, though they often cancel each other out. But this year, there will be a difference. The Republicans will gain much more from their convention than the Democrats will from theirs. This year, there will be no offsetting bounces; the advantage will be Romney’s.
The parties go into their respective conventions with very different tasks in mind. The Republicans need to use their conclave to wipe off the grime with which Obama’s campaign has largely succeeded in covering Mitt Romney. The Democrats will want to continue to besmirch both the opposing party and its nominee and to use the convention to sully the image of the newly minted GOP Vice Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, as well.
But the four-day format of dramatic speeches, films, and delegate interviews has historically been very good at fleshing out the biography of the candidate. It has not, however, been historically effective as an instrument of negative campaigning. So the Republicans are much more likely to achieve their goals than Team Obama is.
History is full of successful biographic conventions. Even when the candidate’s biography — as elaborated at the convention — turned out to be a mixture of lies and exaggerations, when the convention was gaveled to a close, the American people largely accepted it, if only for the moment, as accurate. Frequently the warm biographic glow spawned by the convention went away as the campaign wore on, but the fact is that the convention had established the candidate’s biography, even if only temporarily.
In 1984, Mondale left his convention with his image glowing after selecting Geraldine Ferraro for vice-president. In September, her image was in tatters, but she worked at the convention.
In 1988, Dukakis sold his immigrant heritage and surged to a 17-point lead. He lost it in a tangle of hot button issues, but the convention succeeded.
At the same time, George H. W. Bush, with an assist from speechwriter Peggy Noonan, convinced us that he was “a quiet man who heard the quiet voices” as he searched for “a thousand points of light.”
In 1992, the glow of the comeback kids — Clinton and Gore — was firmly established and their generational theme well articulated.
In 1996, Elizabeth Dole framed Bob’s biography in an Oprah-esque narrative that brought the candidate the only dash of warmth in his long political career.
In 2000, Bush sold the idea that he was a “compassionate conservative” with a heavy emphasis on education.
In 2004, Lt. John Kerry emerged as a Vietnam war hero, only to be swiftboated in the weeks to come.
And, in 2008, Obama presided over the mother of all biographic conventions as his shining star burst forth over an unsuspecting and gullible country.
And so, the 2012 Republican convention will probably succeed in introducing Romney and Ryan and in covering them with accolades, which will help to offset the pounding to which Obama has subjected them.
Will Obama succeed comparably in his negative convention mission? Not very likely.
Conventions aren’t good at throwing negatives. The only success that comes to mind was the 1964 assault on Barry Goldwater led by Hubert Humphrey.
The 1992 Republican convention failed to hurt Bill Clinton. Despite wall-to-wall negatives aimed at both Clintons (more Hillary than Bill), it was the only convention in recent times not to produce any bounce for its candidate. Clinton had trailed badly — often running third to Bush and Perot — until his convention and never relinquished the lead thereafter.
Democrats will be so focused on the negative, exploiting Todd Akin’s remarks, attacking Ryan’s budget, ripping Republican Medicare proposals and talking about Bain Capital and Romney’s tax returns that they are likely to create a disturbing hard-to-watch convention that will fail to offset Romney’s biographic bounce.
The convention is a show. Americans love to see positive, inspiring, uplifting performances. Negatives turn them off and depress the ratings. Who wants to watch four nights of accusations?