With apologies to Joe Biden, the next few days could literally determine whether political conventions as we’ve come to know them will endure through the next presidential election cycle.
The old purpose of conventions – to choose a candidate by bringing together delegates loyal to local, state and regional power brokers in a days-long process that often required multiple ballots to settle – gave way to modern, tightly scripted infomercial model a generation or two ago. The lack of suspense led broadcast networks to scale back their coverage, but the conventions continued to serve a valuable purpose for the parties, often producing significant polling bumps.
But in this same time, the parties have also sorted themselves out ideologically, creating more partisan polarization and fewer voters who might actually be swayed by what they see and hear during a convention. Mitt Romney’s failure to generate anything more than a very modest – at best – polling bounce from the GOP’s Tampa festivities last week spoke to the possibility that the electorate is now so thoroughly polarized that there’s nothing left for either party to gain from these quadrennial gatherings. It also fed talk that the conventions might be severely trimmed or otherwise overhauled starting in 2016.
In the very near future, we should find out whether the lack of a Romney bounce was, in fact, a function of polarization, or if it was really the result of a lousy convention. Because if what played out over the last three days in Charlotte doesn’t provide a meaningful polling bump for President Obama, it’s hard to imagine any convention in the future providing one for any candidate.
The Democrats put on an awfully good show, one that used genuine star power – Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, the president and vice president – to articulate and reinforce a story about the last four years. Viewers were reminded about the precise nature of the economic catastrophe that Obama inherited, the steps he took to address it, the Republican intransigence he’s faced, and the basic philosophical differences between the two parties. Osama bin Laden’s name came up once or twice too. Every prime-time speaker was received like a rock star by the delegates, and the energy came through the television screen. Ratings were very strong too, at least for the first two nights, and presumably for last night as well.
Democrats hope that this will produce a mirror image of 2004, when it was Republicans who received a real polling boost from their New York convention after Democrats failed to gain much ground from their Boston affair. Since Romney sewed up the GOP nomination earlier this year, he’s generally trailed Obama by about 2 or 3 points nationally, though the margin seemed to be tightening just before the GOP’s convention began. The Real Clear Politics polling average had the race dead even on the first day of the Charlotte convention this week. If Obama gets a Romney-like bounce, he’ll move back to a slight lead in that average over the next week. But if he gets a real bounce – a bounce like George W. Bush got in ’04 – he’ll open a lead bigger than anything he’s yet enjoyed in this race.
That would obviously be great news for the Obama campaign. It might also give both parties pause before changing the convention formula too much in ’16.