The decision by the Republican National Committee to cancel the first day of the party’s quadrennial political convention as Tropical Storm Isaac bears down on the Gulf Coast will likely force a split-screen viewership that complicates the GOP’s attempts to tell and sell the story of Mitt Romney.
“Isaac won’t just cause a split-screen viewership,” said Republican strategist John Weaver. “Given [Hurricane] Katrina, all eyes will be on the Mobile to New Orleans Gulf Coast, along with everyone’s thoughts and prayers for the people there.”
Logistically, shortening the convention from four days to three days means shorter speeches for those addressing the assembled delegates and a bit of shuffling of who will speak on what days in order to ensure the faces that Romney and the Republican party want in primetime get in primetime.
But, there are other hurdles posed by the storm currently bearing down on the Gulf Coast.
Remember that conventions — while incredibly scripted and drained of any real drama — represent the single best chance a politician has to introduce himself and make his case to the country. While people like us — aka wild-eyed political junkies — have been following Romney and the Republican presidential race since 2007 (or so), the average person still only has the vaguest sense of the former Massachusetts governor. (They likely know he was a businessman and may know that he was a governor.)
Addressing that lack of voter knowledge is why conventions are still so important — particularly for a challenger candidate running against a sitting incumbent. Four days to tell the story of Mitt Romney allows each night to be fully explore a different aspect of his life — businessman, Olympic head honcho, governor. family man — in a way that three nights probably doesn’t.
The bigger problem for Romney and his party, however, is not the abbreviated time frame they now have to tell/sell people on the story of Mitt. Instead, it’s the fact that it looks increasingly likely that a hurricane of real power will make landfall somewhere between the Panhandle of Florida and New Orleans in the earlier part of the week.
That sort of natural disaster ensures that every newspaper, cable news channel and broadcast network will split their coverage between the hurricane and the Republican National Convention. Instead of the convention leading the evening news — and, yes, tons of people still watch the evening news — for the first four days of this week (at least), it’s now uniquely possible that what happens with Isaac will take that prime news slot.
That split-screen phenomenon goes double — at least — for Florida, which will be dealing with the after-effects from the storm even as Romney is formally accepting the nomination on Thursday night. Republicans chose Florida as the convention site in hopes of dominating the media coverage in this swing state for at least a week. That almost certainly won’t happen now.
To be clear, the most important moment of the convention is, was and always will be Romney’s acceptance speech on Thursday. (We broke down five other speeches worth keeping an eye on in our newspaper column for tomorrow.) No matter what happens along the Gulf Coast over the next few days, what Romney says (and doesn’t say) and how well he is able to connect (or how well he is perceived to connect) will determine whether the convention was a success for the party and their nominee or not.
But make no mistake: The storm clearly complicates the planned rollout of Mitt Romney to the general public for his campaign and his party.