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Columns / Conventions 2012

Lessons Learned in Tampa and Charlotte

President Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte on Thursday.(AP Photo/David Goldman)

photo of Gwen Ifill
September 7, 2012

I am typing this while sitting in a darkened arena. From my vantage point high above the convention floor, thousands of happy Democrats are cheering a video collage of Barack Obama's campaign and presidency. In this version of pro-Obama utopia, the hits fly by — the misses not so much. We watch Sarah Palin dismiss the president's background as a community organizer, and immediately cut to video of then-candidate Obama brushing off his shoulder Jay Z-style and singing a little Al Green. Oh, and then he orders a hit on Osama bin Laden.

It was a joyous week for the Democrats, a blast from the past where Will.i.am and Fleetwood Mac ruled. The party faithful poked fun at Republicans and revved each other up, glossing over their tortured relationship with Bill Clinton and reminding themselves why they got so excited about their cool-headed president four years ago.

In Tampa, the mood was more aggressive. Republicans are out to unseat an incumbent, so their goal was to talk about President Obama's failures and lampoon his claimed successes. Along the way, they had to persuade a narrow sliver of the stubbornly undecided why Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would be an improvement.

 

So now that both conventions are behind us, which party accomplished what it set out to?

Defining the Choice

Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama cast this fall's election as a making a decision to go forward or backward. Inside the convention halls in Tampa and Charlotte, these choices seemed very stark. President Obama, the Republicans said, is a nice guy who is incompetent. Gov. Romney, the Democrats said, is a nice guy who would take the nation over a cliff. These arguments played well to the people in the hall — the party's partisans. It's unclear it would sway any votes outside the security perimeters that encased each convention.

Canceling out the other's advantages

That nice guy thing? That was not for the people inside the hall. In the hostile partisanship of our day, any convention speaker who suggested that Romney or Obama was misguided rather than venal got an almost sulking response. But, in the fight for independent voters who might have less of a taste for red meat, the nominees had to stress that it ain't personal.

But it is. The most heartwarming moments often featured innocents like San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro's daughter preening on the big screen and Mitt Romney's grandchildren frolicking in a torrent of falling balloons. Nearly every speaker shared a story of uplift and a salute to parenthood. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama were unquestionably the most popular speakers at each convention.

Once you get the nice guy thing out of the way — in sadness or condescension, not anger, mind you — then you can move on to the tough stuff.

The Pivot

Each nominee used surrogates to turn the corner into attack. Pugnacious New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., used mockery. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., used righteous indignation. Both Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden attested to the steely spine and clear-eyed vision at the top of the ticket. This was intended for the people outside the hall, many of them tuning into politics for the first time. It was also designed to reassure deep-pocketed supporters whose checks might tilt the balance in critical battleground states.

Seizing the Moment

Convention highs are fleeting, and the days of a post-nomination polling bounce seem to be gone forever. So both candidates need to hustle as fast as they can to snatch every fleeting advantage in the next two months. Both took to the road with their wives for a photogenic swing as soon as they exited Tampa and Charlotte. Mitt Romney has already plunged into preparation for the fall debates. With a fresh batch of mixed unemployment numbers just out, Barack Obama is turning his full incumbent’s attention to saving his job.

We will remember the rising stars in each party — and we got to see quite a few — but expect the pace of the presidential campaign to gain velocity immediately. That means more gaffes, more accusations, more incessant appeals for donations and battleground-state television ad assaults.

And if each party's most loyal members — the delegates who trekked to Tampa and Charlotte to wear funny hats, shake foam fingers, weep at heart-rending stories and soberly sing the National Anthem — are fortunate, the fall may also yield the one thing both candidates insist we now have:

A clear choice.

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