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Why conventions still matter (+video)

Yes, they have become costly infomercials. But political conventions can clarify – and sometimes even electrify. 

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Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, Winston's opponent in many campaigns, agrees. "You really ought to think of a convention not as a one-off event," he says, "but a place where a candidate and party make a core argument."

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Watching a political party discuss ideas, though, doesn't necessarily determine your vote, any more than sticking a peach pit in the ground produces a tree.

Lots of other things matter: the state of the economy, how the candidates fare in what Mr. Garin calls that "other made for TV event" – the debates – and big news events. In 2004, Winston recalls, George W. Bush's convention speech was about national security. The next day came the school massacre in Chechnya, which, he says, helped lock in the support of mothers worried about security.

Perhaps the most important influence: what a candidate believes. Republican consultant Stuart Spencer has argued that the politicians with the most longevity are those who say, "This is where I stand."

The great majority of voters who will watch the conventions believe they know where Mr. Obama and Romney stand, and agree. They've made up their minds. But a convention can reinforce their views of a candidate's character and convictions – and help sway undecideds.

"It's like the opening moves in a chess match," says Winston, an avid chess player. "We begin to see how they frame up the election."

The candidates will differ on the issues. But they'll both aim, among others, for four things.

•Balance problems and solutions.

"They have an obligation to present the future. What would a Romney administration mean for America? You can't just say Obama's terrible," Gaylord says.

"Voters," Garin says, "hunger to hear not just what's wrong with the other guy but if anyone holds out hope for fixing serious problems."

•Be likable.

Aristotle knew this 2,500 years ago. Persuasion, he wrote, involves logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and ethos (character). Voters must like the nominee.

"Not to be unkind," Gaylord says, "but part of the Romney strategy should be to show his humanness." Is Romney just a stiff, rich, white guy who doesn't know what real people are like?

"Expect a lot of his sons, wife, people who can tell stories of him," Gaylord says.

•Segment the audience.

"Candidates open the door to problems not addressed," Winston says. "They say, 'here's what's not occurring relative to your life.' "

Convention organizers focus most intently on the problems of their base. But since different groups may have different problems, both parties will try appealing to them one at a time.

One such target: Hispanics. Strategists in both parties believe winning over this rapidly growing group could heavily influence national elections for decades. In addition to appeals targeting women, African-Americans, and gays, look for more appeals from Spanish-surnamed speakers, mispronounced Spanish phrases, or revised ideas about immigration.

•Focus on swing states.

Sorry, most voters. For Romney and Obama, this election is not about you. Right now, both campaigns know almost exactly how 41 states will vote. They are fighting over the remaining nine. Those states account for 115 electoral votes – 70 of them in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Florida alone. Look for attention and speakers appealing to issues especially vital to these Big Four.

Meanwhile, here's what convention planners will try to make sure you won't see in 2012: intraparty squabbles. Like platform fights.

Platforms are fascinating and useful. They remind you that at one point Republicans were the party of antitrust legislation, and in 1972 supported the "statesmanship of the labor union movement." They remind you that Democrats once wanted to restrict immigrants from China but not other "worthy" nations, wanted to cut government spending (1904), and supported the Ku Klux Klan (1924).

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