In some years, the parties have emerged from the conventions with sharply contrasting tones. For example, when the Democrats were split over the Vietnam War in 1968, the party’s elites picked Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the convention in Chicago, and the antiwar faction went ballistic. Police and protesters battled in the streets, while pro- and antiwar delegates shouted each other down in the convention hall. Meanwhile, the Republican Party met in Miami Beach and had a tranquil coronation of Richard Nixon. The GOP came out looking better — and went on to win in November. And incidentally, the chaos in Chicago led to the reforms that created the modern nominating system.
The 1992 conventions pitted Republican culture warriors Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, whose calls to “take back our country” sounded tone-deaf to many voters, against Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who projected youth, vitality and progress. The country rewarded their social liberalism in November as George H.W. Bush lost his bid for a second term.
And in 2004, each convention sought to portray its candidate as a war hero. The Democrats made John Kerry’s service in Vietnam a key theme, only to see it tarnished by the swift boat ad campaign. George W. Bush, who did not see combat in Vietnam, trumpeted his strong leadership after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and during the still-popular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush’s manufactured military career dominated Kerry’s actual one.
Considering how negative the 2012 campaign has been, it would not be surprising if both conventions focused mostly on the flaws and shortcomings of their opponents — a classic “lesser of two evils” election.
2. The nominee’s speech is the most important part of the convention.
Many of us might get our fill of the candidates before the party meetings start. However, other speeches can have a lasting effect on the rest of the campaign.
In 1980, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s attempt to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination failed, but Kennedy’s words at the convention proved memorable. His “the dream shall never die” speech, imploring the party to renew its commitment to economic justice, roused convention-goers to their feet. And his endorsement of his onetime rival helped give Carter a bump in public support.
In contrast, Buchanan’s “culture war” speech dragged down the Bush-Quayle ticket in 1992, turning off moderate voters with moralistic rhetoric.
Who will steal the show in 2012? My bet is on former president Bill Clinton, who will officially place President Obama’s name in nomination, and who will probably use the opportunity to burnish his record and that of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the once-and-maybe-future presidential candidate.
3. The convention bounce is meaningless.