The Decreasing Relevance of the Campaign Speech

And why that helps Jeb Bush.

empty lectern
National Journal
March 4, 2015, 5 a.m.

In his first big address of the 2016 cycle in Detroit last month, Jeb Bush used a teleprompter. He wanted to get it over with, it seemed, resulting in a notably rushed and flat delivery.

A few weeks later, in a major foreign policy address in Chicago, he’d switched to notes on his lectern. Rushing through what should have been conservative red meat and surefire applause lines, he tripped over his words, mispronouncing key terms and making factual errors.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, the former Florida governor and presidential contender chose not to give a speech at all; he instead endured a casual question-and-answer session with Fox News host Sean Hannity. It made sense for Bush, whose comfort with unscripted remarks has stood in sharp contrast to his uninspired — even cringe-worthy — addresses over the past month; in both Detroit and Chicago, Bush seemed much more at ease during the Q&A session. Given the opportunity to forgo a traditional scripted talk, his campaign likely jumped at it: Delivering speeches is clearly not his forte, and Bush seems like a different person in off-the-cuff, more relaxed conversations.

For years, like gatherings in greasy diners, speaking from the stump or behind a lectern has been a central part of the campaign trail. Speeches persuade donors and supporters, allow a campaign to craft a candidate’s narrative, and drive press attention. When delivered well, they have a startling power to inspire — and no candidate can escape them entirely. But amid a changing media environment and the increasing popularity of town hall-style forums, lacking that Obamaesque skill isn’t fatal to a presidential campaign.

Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter who worked in the Obama administration, told National Journal that speeches are becoming less relevant. The major addresses that people gather together to watch, Lovett said, aren’t from candidates; they’re the inaugurals, the State of the Union speeches. On the campaign trail, most people catch up on the gist of an hour-long address in soundbites.

“People see less and less of speeches,” he said. “They see snippets, they see lines here and there.”

While media and political types watch campaign speeches closely, it’s not so easy for the average voter to tune into C-SPAN at noon on a Tuesday for a foreign policy sermon. Instead, they’ll catch the highlights on the evening news, or, more likely, scan the headlines on their phone the next day. That puts the substance of the speech, an area Bush commands, at the fore.

Even Lovett, whose old boss’s gifted oratory — particularly in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention — helped launch him onto the national stage, acknowledges that giving a good speech isn’t contingent on compelling, riveting delivery. Authenticity, sincerity, intelligence, wisdom, and good ideas can also effectively sell a message, he said, just in a different way.

“Regardless of how lyrical or rhetorically gifted they are in conveying big ideas,” Lovett said, “any candidate can do a good job of giving a speech if the goal of a speech is more than just delivering it well, but achieving some end, whether it’s convincing people of some issue, or persuading them about you as a person.”

Bush’s grasp of policy in his less formal remarks may be able to do that on its own. Although he seemed nervous at the start of his CPAC appearance on Friday, fidgeting and speaking somewhat haltingly, he grew more confident as the grilling went on. Largely avoiding the slam-dunk applause lines his fellow speakers heaped onto the conservative crowd, Bush stuck to positions that didn’t go over as well, such as his support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But he also used immigration to push more-popular conservative views: securing the border with Mexico and hammering Obama’s “failed” presidency.

Avoiding speeches, though, potentially misses out on another vital aspect of the campaign process: gaining down donors. Michael Sheehan, a veteran Democratic speech and media consultant, told National Journal that traditionally, donors use speeches to judge whom they ultimately back.

“If they see that you are able to move a crowd or galvanize a crowd,” Sheehan said, “they’re far more likely to support you.”

Sans scripted and carefully served-up applause lines, inspiring a crowd is tough to do. But Bush’s political cachet — due both to his surname and to his long personal history in politics — will likely neutralize that potential roadblock. Donors are already flocking to him, and his aggressive fundraising operation last month announced an impressive goal of $100 million in the first three months of the year.

Speeches do, of course, still have value. While Bush successfully avoided giving scripted remarks at CPAC and will likely be able to do so on occasion in the future, in one way, it might not be in his best interest. Crafting a cohesive argument on a specific topic, said Lovett, is a crucial part of the campaign process, as speeches “force decisions inside of campaigns.” After holding court with a melange of advisers and hearing myriad briefings, a speech on economic policy, for example, allows a candidate to distill all of that information into one harmonious economic platform.

“It forces inconsistencies to be ironed out,” Lovett said. “Because the speech is an argument, and a great speech makes an argument well, the act of making that argument is a really important part of how the policy process coalesces and solidifies both for the candidate and also the people serving that candidate.”

Speeches also allow campaigns to set a candidate’s narrative. In 2008, Obama’s rhetoric of hope and “change we can believe in” helped focus the candidate’s message. In addition, it successfully shaped a broad message that Republican nominee John McCain wouldn’t be enough of a departure from President George W. Bush.

Obama’s captivating delivery played a key role, too. When a voter watches a spine-tingling speech, Lovett said, it makes a difference.

“There is that definition of leadership that says, ‘Leadership is convincing people to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have done because you’ve made them believe it’s the right thing to do.’ And a great speech can do that,” he said. “A great speech can make you remember something about what you believe, about who you are, about who you want to be. It’s rare when that kind of thing happens. But it is important, and it is real.”

As far as speech-giving goes, Bush will probably never be on par with Obama, or fellow Floridian and likely primary challenger Sen. Marco Rubio. When he was running for governor in Florida and during his time in office, Bush was never known as a “fantastic orator by any stretch of the imagination,” Matt Corrigan, a professor at the University of North Florida who wrote Conservative Hurricane, a book about Bush’s gubernatorial agenda, told National Journal. But unlike his recent speeches, he “didn’t rush through” remarks, and was always “effective” in getting his message across.

Aubrey Jewett, who studies Jeb Bush as a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, has another word for it.

“Competent. He gave competent speeches,” Jewett told National Journal of Bush’s time in the Florida Governor’s Mansion.

Bush’s record as governor suggests that his uninspired oration will improve as he gets more comfortable on the stump. As he reenters the rhythm of daily public life, he should be able to deliver, if not particularly impassioned speeches, effective addresses. But he has a big toolbox from which to draw out a win by other means.

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