Convention Debates Gone, Only the 'Bounce' Remains

Let us now praise great political conventions.

The last time a party's presidential nominee was selected in the legendary "smoke-filled back rooms" of a national political convention was more than half a century ago in 1952. A successful convention today is not likely to produce sharp debate on the great issues of the day, let alone the drama of a little-known candidate using Machiavellian strategies to frustrate the front-runner.

Instead, modern American conventions make their place in history on the benefit they provide to a candidate who has already been anointed in the primaries. And the measure of that benefit is the nominee's "bounce" in the post-convention polls.

But a great convention does require some drama. The star of the drama must be the nominee. He has got to tap into the basics of a hero — a man standing in the winds of change, beating back powerful enemies and taking charge.

A prime example is Franklin Delano Roosevelt's performance at the 1932 Democratic convention. Speaking to a nation wracked by the economic chaos of the Great Depression he introduced listeners to the winning idea of a "New Deal for the American People." During the Civil War, President Lincoln spoke in defense of maintaining the Union. And in 1896, with the issue of the gold standard for the nation's currency dominating the news, William Jennings Bryan gave the oration known as the "Cross of Gold." That one speech allowed him to emerge as the convention hero and win the nomination.

Ronald Reagan used the Republican 1964 convention in San Francisco to make himself a hero to people tired of the big money, eastern establishment then in control of the GOP. Reagan portrayed himself as an optimistic Westerner, an individual opposed to big government and supportive of states' rights (then a key issue for Southern politicians opposed to federal civil rights legislation). Reagan's performance didn't help Barry Goldwater, who was the party's nominee that year, but it did launch Reagan's own far more successful career in politics.

On the plus side, in the last half-century conventions have happily become more open to minorities, to women, to the media. But they also have ceased to be nominating events. The 21st century conventions are a lot like coronations. They are the federally funded gateway through which a candidate introduces himself to the general electorate. This is the era of the convention as a studio performance, strategically produced to create the political image necessary for victory in November. Over the last 20 years about 40 percent of Americans have consistently told pollsters that they began to focus on the presidential election only at the start of the conventions.

By this new standard, the prize for the best political convention of recent vintage has to go to the Democrats' effort on behalf of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992. Tapping into the expertise of his supporters in Hollywood, Clinton presented himself as "the man from Hope," a small-town American boy who defied the odds, became a scholar, a governor and a candidate who asked voters for their support to claim the presidency. Clinton got a 16-point bounce in the horserace polls against incumbent President George Bush from that 1992 convention. It helped that third-party rival Ross Perot dropped out during the Democrats' convention, but Clinton's great leap forward was still a record.

At the 2000 GOP convention, candidate George W. Bush tried to shed the image of Republicans as too white and far to the right. He featured black entertainers and speakers, including Colin Powell, now the secretary of state, who challenged the GOP with a call to support affirmative action. But Bush got just a four-point bounce in the polls against his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore.

For his part, Gore used his convention to establish his own persona. He made a show of a long kiss with his wife — a clear point of distinction from the marital problems that swirled around his boss, Bill Clinton. Gore succeeded on the marital issue but seemed to be running away from Clinton on his good points as well as bad. Still, Gore got an eight-point bounce and briefly seemed to have seized control of the fall contest.

Ironically, these carefully planned productions designed for TV have been losing their audience. The is no chance of an unscripted moment — a speech or a debate — on a truly key issue in American politics, such as abortion, gun control, the death penalty, gay marriage or affirmative action. As result, network television coverage of the conventions has gone from 120 hours in 1972 to 30 hours in 1996 to 12 hours in 2000.

This year, the broadcast TV networks are planning only a single hour of coverage on three of the four nights, leaving the gavel-to-gavel business to the cable operations.

As a result, the percentage of voters who now use the conventions as a starting point for focusing on the general election is now down to 20 percent, according to a New York Times/CBS poll. There are few voters left to be won over and this year there is little need to stir the Democratic base, which is already angry and anxious to oust the Republican in the White House. So, even with the nation at war in Iraq and strong antagonism running throughout the party against President Bush, the convention is limiting anti-war rhetoric and anti-Bush rhetoric.

To counter the waning TV interest, Sen. John Kerry's convention team is crafting a production with nightly themes and nightly stars. One night will feature Kerry's optimism; another night will focus on his background as a veteran; yet another on his support from women voters. There will be political stars, including former President Bill Clinton and entertainment stars, such as Willie Nelson and Wyclef Jean. And the man in charge of the show will be TV producer Don Mischer, an Emmy Award winner who staged the final night of the Salt Lake City Olympics

But every speech will still be carefully vetted by Kerry campaign officials to prevent any word of controversy that might be construed as a lack of party unity. Even the idea of street protests has been circumscribed by court rulings that place demonstrators in carefully fenced-in areas.

If the law of averages prevails, Kerry will receive a bounce of between 5.8 and 6.9 points, the mean for the last 10 election cycles. President Bush, as an incumbent, can expect a bounce of just 5.4 or 5.5 points on the same basis.

The bottom line for both candidates is winning, and rightly so. But the grit and maneuvering of old-time conventions is now so deeply hidden it might as well be buried — right alongside the idea of the convention as a riveting, great national debate.

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