Democrats need a good convention. Obama’s political vulnerabilities are clear and rival Mitt Romney’s opportunities obvious. Charlotte can’t be a reenactment of Denver in 2008. But anything that conveys a loss of hope, disappointment in the president or a slackening of enthusiasm will be magnified manyfold by the media assembled here this week.
The contest remains a statistical tie nationally. Romney didn’t get a noticeable boost in the polls from his convention. But he did use his gathering to improve his image, even if that was primarily among Republicans. If Obama can do better than that, if he can move the polls a few points with his convention, he will begin the final phase of the race in better shape than many expected.
It’s far too soon to make judgments about the overall impact of this convention, but the contrast with the beginning of the Republican gathering in Tampa last week was palpable. That’s why Tuesday’s start was important.
In Tampa, the opening night was marked by a lack of energy on the floor. The aisles in the arena were wide open. Delegates talked among themselves throughout almost all the speeches, other than those by Ann Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
One measure: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker received hearty applause when he was introduced, reflecting his widespread popularity in the party. But he rarely roused the crowd once he began speaking and exited the stage to much milder adulation.
If the enthusiasm in Tampa was mostly anti-Obama rather than pro-Romney, it was different in Charlotte. On Tuesday, the floor was alive with energy. People crowded into every space available. The Obama convention team had distributed placards and signs to augment the messages from different speakers, and they were used to good effect when both Michelle Obama and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivered their prime-time addresses.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, never given to understatement, offered a predictably bullish assessment of opening night. “We had more energy in one night than [Republicans] had in four,” he said at a Wednesday breakfast held by The Washington Post and Bloomberg News.
Discounting for partisan cheerleading (and the fact that Republicans had only three nights in Tampa because of a hurricane threat), Emanuel managed to sum up something that was unmistakable to anyone roaming the floor at the Time Warner Cable Arena on Tuesday night.
But there was much more than optics and good signage that helped Democrats begin a convention that is being conducted in the shadow of what took place four years ago in Denver.