How the GOP convention could help – and harm – Mitt Romney
Though news of hurricane Isaac hangs like a dark cloud over the delayed Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney still stands to benefit from the event in a couple key ways.
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Four years ago, Sarah Palin's rousing speech as vice-presidential nominee electrified the delegates and gave Republican activists their first real hope of victory. The financial crisis and then-Governor Palin's media missteps would soon drown that hope, but for a while, the grass-roots GOP was jazzed about stuffing envelopes and walking precincts. If this year's convention speeches have a similar effect, they will supply something that has been missing from the Romney campaign: passion.Skip to next paragraph
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So far, so good, but conventions can go wrong.
Partisan passion is like gasoline, both a source of energy and a hazardous substance that can cause explosions. Twenty years ago, Pat Buchanan addressed the Republican convention at Houston's Astrodome, exhorting his listeners to "take back our country." I was there and can attest that the speech was a big hit with the delegates. Outside the Astrodome, however, Mr. Buchanan's rhetoric seemed harsh to rank-and-file voters, and it led to charges that extremists were taking over the GOP.
Aides to President George H.W. Bush saw an advance copy of the text, but they failed to anticipate how it would sound to moderate voters. I didn't hear anyone at the convention talk about the Buchanan problem until the next day, when it was too late to undo the damage.
The episode thus serves as a cautionary tale. There comes a point where firing up the base means turning away swing voters, and it can be hard to find that point ahead of time. The Romney campaign has to exercise caution in reviewing convention speeches.
Dangers also lurk away from the podium. Thousands of delegates, politicians, staffers, and various hangers-on will descend on Tampa. Many of them have a poor sense of what is politically prudent to say out loud.
That's a problem, because a large number of reporters, bloggers, and Democratic opposition researchers will also be waiting around, with video cameras and voice recorders in hand. If somebody associated with the convention accuses the president of being a socialist or proposes the abolition of Social Security, such a comment will make its way around the Internet faster than you can say "viral video."
We shouldn't overestimate the impact of conventions. A good convention might add just a percentage point to a candidate's national vote count, and a bad convention might subtract one. But if the election is extremely close – as the 2012 race may well be – that point could make a difference. Stay tuned.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."