Her two small grandchildren spilled onto her lap. Her cat Zazuu was manically trying to squeeze into the room through the gap at the bottom of the closed door. Her chocolate Labrador, Ripley, moved about her den sniffing legs. Through it all, undecided voter Robin Riner, her face lit brightly by an aquarium in which tiny fish danced, did not take her eyes off the TV screen. These days she intently listens for anything that might open a window on to President Obama or Mitt Romney, neither of whom is yet clear for her. Now, she studied the convention speeches of two Republicans she recognized, Ann Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Riner, who lives in Manassas, takes her undecided status seriously. “If you want to know who’s going to be the best candidate, you gotta listen to everything,” she said.
She knew that all of the things she saw on the Republicans’ convention stage were chiefly meant for her and the other Robin Riners out there, those relatively few Americans voters who have yet to make up their minds. The Republicans’ flashing national debt sign. The stage’s changing screen behind the speakers, which at this moment was a fairy-tale sky blue, with floating cloudlike wisps, very serene, very dreamy, very “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” All of it was meant to win over people like her. “We’re going to be the ones to decide,” she happily observed.
It was Night 1 of three days of Republican convention watching, and Riner lounged barefoot in her La-Z-Boy recliner, the same one from which she watches her beloved Washington Redskins. When anyone scores points anywhere in life, Riner likes to celebrate. “There you go, there it is,” she exulted when Christie delivered a line about fiscal discipline that she liked, sounding exactly like the rabid sports fan she is.
A self-identified independent who works as a supermarket bakery manager, Riner has eclectic political tastes that defy ideological labels. Mostly, she likes passionate people. She admires conservative firebrand Rick Santorum and liberal television commentator Rachel Maddow. She voted for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (“Bill could sell me oceanfront property in Arizona”). A married mother of four, she voted for John McCain in 2008, yet this time Obama has a serious chance for her vote in part because of Obama’s health-care overhaul, particularly the section that has provided health coverage for her 22-year-old daughter, Katy, under Riner’s insurance plan. “But I worry about the deficit,” she said. “It’s way too big. So I gotta listen to this.”
By then, the 51-year-old Riner had endured a slew of speechifying Republicans whose names and words she forgot virtually the instant they left the convention stage: New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval; former Democratic Alabama congressman turned Democratic-antagonist Artur Davis; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Riner kept doggedly watching all that night and well into Night 2, when she suddenly experienced convention overload. She had to get away. While TV viewers listened to points that included charges that Obama planned to siphon from Medicare to pay for Obamacare, a political version of the fox storming the hen house, Riner went out into her back yard to check on her chicken coop. Foxes had raided it, literally: Three of her five chickens were gone, with scattered white feathers serving as stark evidence of how, and in which direction, the chickens had been dragged off into the adjoining woods.
The convention was momentarily forgotten. “I think the foxes got in through the back, maybe they dug underneath the fence,” she said a while later.
The mystery was as confounding to her as what she would do about Obama and Romney. She secured the coop, gladly hung out with her grandchildren for a while and returned to her den. As Ohio Sen. Rob Portman spoke to a filled convention center in Tampa and millions of TV viewers, she reached for her remote and clicked to a Redskins preseason game. “Yeah, we scored again,” she yelled.
For Riner, the football game was a slice of paradise in what was otherwise that night mostly a frozen tundra, she said, of choreographed partisan speeches and platitudes. It was a modern American political convention, she observed. “Everything is so carefully planned,” she said. “Republicans and Democrats. Everybody seems to be reading careful speeches from a teleprompter that somebody else wrote for them.”
She liked the style of past conventions, she said. She was old enough to remember conventions from the 1970s and ’80s when feverish speakers got up and challenged some party bigwig, and sometimes somebody got dragged off the convention floor. She loved the unpredictability of a guy who looked like somebody’s crazy Uncle Fester seconding a candidate’s nomination and saying something nutty and defiantly contrarian about how he didn’t like what was going on in the party or saying something totally out of bounds about somebody in the opposing party.
She would love an Uncle Fester moment now, if for nothing else than a little spontaneity. “There just doesn’t seem to be much, a lot coming from the heart anymore,” she said. “A football game is way more exciting.”
But, after a minute or two of watching football, she turned back to CNN. Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ 42-year-old vice-presidential nominee, was getting ready to headline Night 2 in a prime-time speech. “I’ve never seen him speak,” she said. “What matters more is Romney tomorrow.”
She had questions about Romney’s authenticity. For a few seconds, she struggled to put her concerns into words, and then they came in a gush as Ripley flopped down alongside her. “I don’t feel that connection to him that I need — I don’t feel yet like I really know him at all,” she said, noting that, by contrast, she had felt connected to Santorum during the campaign. “I need to feel some sincerity from him tomorrow night or sometime. I need to know what he would do for health insurance for young people like Katy. His business experience really helps him, because the United States is like a business, no matter what anybody says. I like that about him. But I need to feel his heart.”
She had loved a speech earlier in the evening from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (“She could be president”). But, from its beginnings, the Ryan speech did not stir Riner. A few minutes into it, as the convention crowd heartily cheered a line, she said: “I think for a while he was losing the audience. And that maybe brought them back.”
“So-so,” she said at the end. “I give it a B, a few good points about the deficit. But it was a little lengthy, dragged a little.” She still yearned for a wild card speaking off the cuff. “If there was just something once in a while where something really happened, somebody said or did something, like in the old days. But this?” She shook her head.
Across America, the TV ratings had been down on the first two nights from four years earlier. Even an exasperated Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly expressed his frustrations about modern conventions to NBC, echoing Riner: “How much bloviating can you take?”
But, then on the third and final night of the convention, Riner finally got her wish.
She got her crazy Uncle Fester moment.
Riveted, she sat next to her husband, Bill, as Clint Eastwood came onto the stage and began talking to an empty chair alongside him, pretending Obama was in the chair. Grinning and rambling, flying on the wings of improvisation, the legendary Hollywood titan mocked Obama and his record for a while before pausing to pretend that the president was talking back to him, telling Eastwood to commit an act of, uh, monogenesis.
Later, Eastwood declared: “Politicians are employees of ours.”
“There you go,” Riner said.
Afterward, several television analysts skewered Eastwood’s performance, suggesting he looked sad and doddering, and wondered what voters would make of a convention that had permitted a prominent speaker to talk to an empty chair. But Riner loved it, yet another sign of how hard it is to read the undecideds. In the world of reality television that she knows well, Eastwood was tame if anything, Riner said.
“That was funny, nice, airy,” she said. “Clint was telling us that we own the country — and we can change it.”
By the time Romney took the stage, it was past 10:30, and Riner’s eyes looked a little heavy. A couple of times, the eyes closed, but Riner never stopped listening. When Romney talked of family and unconditional love, Riner’s eyes opened wider. And she paid closer attention when Romney talked of 12 million new jobs and a five-step plan.
“I thoroughly enjoyed that speech,” she said at the end. “It humanized him a little. I feel like I know him a little bit. He had his five points. I still need to see something more on his plan on health — there’s gotta be something affordable for those people like my daughter. But I think if Romney does this well in the debates, I might be leaning his way.”
She admitted she was glad to have all this TV watching behind her. “After this, to be honest, I don’t think I’m going to be able to watch more than one night of the Democrats, maybe just when Obama talks,” she said. “It’s just too much the same stuff — you gotta just sit there.”
She was a modern television watcher, only the modern convention hadn’t kept pace with her. “They can’t go on that way a lot longer,” she said and then walked into her darkened back yard for another look at the chicken coop.