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Convention-al Wisdom

Convention organizers must grapple with growing demands for speaking slots amid shrinking floor and coverage time.

photo of Reid Wilson
May 3, 2012

Now that Mitt Romney has sewn up the Republican nomination, he will turn his attention to picking a vice presidential running mate and building a foundation for a national campaign. Romney has it easy—at least compared with the poor planners who will spend the better part of the next four months preparing for the national convention aimed at introducing Romney on his own terms. 

President Obama's aides would seem to have it easier, because he's the undisputed leader of his party. But his aides have their own troubles to deal with, some of which are of their own making. 

Staffers from both camps face the unenviable task of juggling the monumental egos involved in partisan politics, balancing the wants and needs of those who might deserve prime-time convention speaking slots with the necessities of the nominee's message. Those who planned previous conventions say organizers will come under tremendous pressure as other party leaders pull out all the stops for coveted time slots. And they already face a time crunch, with the late-summer conventions looming.


"It's a key moment in the campaign where the campaign wants to give prominent supporters prominent roles to thank them. They've got to manage prominent figures in the party who are going to expect prominent roles, and there's simply not enough time for all the people who want to speak," said Theo Yedinsky, the deputy program director for the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston and now head of public affairs firm North Social. 

The first thing organizers will consider is how to structure the made-for-television affairs. In 2004, Republicans running President Bush's renomination in New York City used nightly themes to promote key issues: The first night featured former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, touting Bush's national-security and foreign-policy achievements in a city that had been attacked by terrorists just three years prior. The second night featured some of the party's biggest minority stars, including then-Education Secretary Rod Paige; Michael Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor at the time; and George P. Bush, the president's nephew. 

Democrats have a more standard script: The first nights of recent conventions have featured the first lady or the candidate's wife alongside some of the party's elder statesmen (President Clinton in 2000 and 2004, Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2008). The second night is reserved for the keynote address, usually delivered by a rising star in the party (Indiana's then-Gov. Evan Bayh in 1996, then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee in 2000, and Barack Obama, then a Senate candidate, in 2004). Both parties traditionally reserve the third night for the vice presidential nominee and the fourth for the candidate. 

But beyond the major players, allocating the rest of the prime speaking slots is a touchy subject. Insiders in both parties said the behind-the-scenes lobbying can be fierce, and several related stories of politicians who demanded much more floor time than they were finally offered. The national broadcast networks have not finalized coverage plans but are unlikely to offer more than an hour each night, according to several knowledgeable sources. That's almost guaranteed to lead to hard feelings.

Romney's team must grapple with several former rivals and party standouts who will make the case that they deserve a spot. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas all have committed or pledged convention delegates they have not released. The party's rising stars—Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (assuming they don't get the vice presidential nomination), as well as Govs. Susana Martinez, Chris Christie, and Brian Sandoval—could all be used to send a message on Romney's behalf. Even George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, should they want it, could lay claim to a major prime-time address (though few believe either will demand the time). 

Romney, wrapping up a nomination that exposed rifts between his camp and conservatives, can use the convention to ease strains by offering plum speaking posts to anyone who might otherwise make trouble. But the objective of the modern convention—a chance to reach out to the middle of the electorate—means prime-time speaking roles for the most prominent agitators wouldn't send the message Romney's team wants. Snubbing a prominent conservative could risk inconvenient stories about the candidate's perceived problems with his own party's base. 

Several insiders interviewed for this story said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will present a unique challenge to Romney's team: Will they give her a prime spot to satisfy her fans, or reduce her role because of her polarizing nature?

"You want people to generate interest and passion," said one Republican who has organized conventions before and who, like others, didn't want to be named. "Sarah Palin goes to a very small segment, relatively speaking, of the Republican Party. And you're trying to put together a rainbow coalition." (Democrats faced a similar situation in 1992, when then-Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was denied a speaking role, he believed, because he opposes abortion rights.)

Obama's team will be even more squeezed. Instead of four nights of prime-time access, they have effectively limited themselves to two nights. The party has already cut the length of its convention from four days to three, skipping Labor Day. But to avoid clashing with Obama's acceptance speech, the NFL has moved the opening game of the season to Sept. 5—a game that will steal millions of viewers who would otherwise be watching Vice President Biden's acceptance speech. 

Biden could speak on Tuesday, the convention's opening night. But Clinton is playing enough of a role, and still commands a loyal enough fan base, that he's likely to get a major address. Former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and former President Carter are all still leaders with a following within the party, giving Obama's schedulers more than enough cause to reach for the Tums. 

"You've got to manage message, you've got to manage people's egos, and you've got limited time," Yedinsky said. In an era in which political programming takes a backseat to crime drama reruns, the time is even more limited—while the headaches the crunch creates are only growing worse.

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