With this year’s eclectic roster of speakers, it is difficult to pinpoint the overriding message Republicans want to send in Cleveland. But if they want to see what works and what doesn’t work, all they have to do is look back to the first time they tried to beat a Clinton. That was 1992, when Republicans did just about everything wrong at their convention and Democrats did just about everything right at theirs.
What both parties learned that year is that conventions still matter, even though their historical role of picking presidential nominees has long since been usurped by primaries and caucuses. Now, the conventions have become messaging machines, four-day infomercials in which a nominee tries to signal what a party stands for and who is welcome within its ranks.
Never was that chore better handled by one party and mangled worse by the other than in 1992, when Democrats gathered in New York City to nominate Bill Clinton and Republicans went to Houston to renominate President George H.W. Bush.
In New York, almost everybody was relentlessly on message that this was a “new” Democratic Party, with Clinton and his fellow youthful, Southern running mate Al Gore bearing little kinship to the liberals who had led Democrats to drubbings in five of the last six elections. Mario Cuomo spoke eloquently about “the politics of inclusion” and hammered home the importance of “jobs” and “work.” Keynoter Barbara Jordan used the word “change” 33 times in her address, making sure viewers knew this was not their father’s Democratic Party.
The message was repeated so often and so effectively that independent candidate Ross Perot, who only two months earlier was leading the three-way race, shocked everyone by dropping out of the contest on July 16, the final day of the convention. “The Democratic Party has revitalized itself,” he declared. “They’ve done a brilliant job, in my opinion, in coming back.”
Thirty-one days later, the Republicans had their chance to counter that Democratic message found so attractive by Perot and millions of other wavering voters. Their response played right into the Democrats’ hands. While the Democrats had stressed change and inclusion, the GOP offered status quo and exclusion. The party that had pioneered scripted conventions in Miami in 1972 veered wildly off script the very first night when Patrick Buchanan took the stage.
Buchanan had waged a fiery but unsuccessful primary battle against Bush, and the president’s people were in no mood to give him a prime-time slot. Right after the primaries, Bush aide Torie Clarke said that if Buchanan wanted to be allowed onto the podium, he “has to get down on his hands and knees and grovel on broken glass with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out—and then we’ll talk.”
But Charlie Black, who was a Bush aide and has attended 10 GOP conventions, often playing a key role, recalled this week that the president had to relent. “A couple of weeks before the convention, Bush was still losing about 25 percent of Republican voters,” Black told National Journal. “So we decided to let Buchanan speak and to put some more conservative speakers up there to try to get some of them back. And Pat managed to give a speech that just totally alienated a lot of people.”
In the speech, Buchanan lashed out at Democrats, calling their New York convention “the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history” and labeling Democrats as “the malcontents of Madison Square Garden.” The best remembered part of the address was Buchanan’s declaration of “a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side.”
Black and the Bush people were stunned as they listened. “It had been vetted, but he left the teleprompter and he added a lot of that fiery cultural stuff,” said Black. What made this political malpractice was that by going overtime, Buchanan’s 30-minute speech pushed out of prime time the last speech Ronald Reagan would ever give to a Republican convention. More than half the country did not see Reagan’s valedictory, a funny, gentle, and welcoming appeal “that you will love your country, not for her power or wealth, but for her selflessness and her idealism.”
“That was one of those conventions where anything that could go wrong did go wrong,” said Black. That included harsh speeches from Marilyn Quayle, wife of the vice president, and the Rev. Pat Robertson. Quayle acidly noted that “not everyone joined the counterculture” in the Baby Boom generation and insisted that “most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.” Robertson warned that Clinton would “appoint homosexuals to his administration.”
It was not a very welcoming message, made worse by Republican National Committee Chairman Rich Bond’s defiant claim to a reporter, “We are America. … These other people are not America.” The problem is that this conservative cultural call obscured any talk of jobs or the economy at a time of recession. “The message of Houston was we’re concerned about the culture and not about the economy,” said longtime Democratic strategist Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, who was in the Democratic “war room” during the 1992 convention.
What was done at the conventions that year mattered to voters, and what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do at the 2016 conventions will also matter, if for no reason other than that the conventions are the last chance to get across largely unfiltered what they think they offer the nation. Gone are the days of gavel-to-gavel television coverage. Gone as well are the days when the networks offered at least 20 hours of coverage. Today, that is down to single digits.
But the audiences, by any measure, remain large. In 2008, more Americans watched Barack Obama’s acceptance speech than watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, the Academy Awards, or the American Idol finale. Even with the audience declining for the 2012 conventions, 35.7 million watched the final night for the Democrats and 30.3 million watched the final night for the GOP. That is more than watched Game 7 of the NBA playoffs and more than watch an average NFL game.
More than 100 million Americans watched at least parts of the two conventions in 1992. And research by the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan showed the conventions can be influential. Fully 36 percent of the voters made up their minds in 1992 either during the conventions or immediately after. In 1988, a remarkable 51 percent determined their vote in that convention time period.
In these more polarized times, more voters may be immune to the sway of the conventions. But Black, who has advised Trump, believes it is his best chance to change the narrative working against him. “The most important thing at the convention is the nominee’s speech. … If Donald can give a good speech, it could add a lot to his favorables. It has to be serious. He can’t give a rally speech, with all that ‘crooked Hillary’ stuff.”