Five ways GOP can use the Republican National Convention to excite voters

Party nomination conventions aren't what they used to be. In 1852, Democrats cast 49 ballots before nominating Franklin Pierce. The Whigs (there were no Republicans yet) took even longer, selecting Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot. Don't expect such high drama this year. With the nominees already assured and party leaders marching in lock step, the conventions are likely to be little more than high-tech pep rallies that threaten to be, in the words of Macbeth, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What might the Republicans, who convene in Tampa, Fla., at the end of August, do to excite voters and chart a path to victory? It is enticing to play to the faithful. After all, those are the folks who offer their time, effort, and patriotic headgear to listen to speeches, wave signs, and join the revelry on the convention floor. But party leaders who want to win should also reach out to swing voters.

Disaffected and undecided voters are unlikely to follow gavel-to-gavel coverage of either convention, but the images, themes, and sound bites generated there will set the tone for the rest of the election season. Party leaders need to send the right message. Here are five suggestions for the GOP ahead of the Republican National Convention Aug. 27-30.

1.Rally the troops

Workers remove Tampa Bay Lightning merchandise from the Tampa Bay Times Forum on July 16 in Tampa, Fla. as they begin converting the facility for the 2012 Republican National Convention Aug. 27-30. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Back suggests five ways the GOP can use its convention to excite voters and chart a path to victory. (Edmund D. Fountain/The Tampa Bay Times/AP)

Remind them that every vote counts. Successful conventions generate sufficient hope and enthusiasm to enlist armies of grassroots volunteers and energize the base to get out and vote.

In a June Gallup poll, a majority of swing-state Republicans said they were extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in November. Ride that wave and build even more enthusiasm for the months ahead. Party leaders can't afford for committed Republicans to stay home in November.

Connect voters with Mitt Romney

Voters are well aware of Mr. Romney's business background, and many praise him for it. But he lags far behind President Obama in likability and on voters' belief that he understands the everyday problems of Americans.

Romney is unlikely to completely close the likability gap, but the convention gives Republicans four scripted days to introduce Romney to voters, many of whom still know little about him. Tell his story in ways that connect with average Americans; let his wife, children, and longtime friends reveal his kinder, gentler side.

Reach out to independents

Polling suggests Romney can do well with independent voters. According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, both candidates have strong support from fellow partisans, but Romney has a slight edge with independents, who favor him over Mr. Obama by seven points.

Republicans have an opportunity to build that lead, especially with the 28 percent of independents who say they may change their mind. A majority of independents disapprove of Obama's job performance. Republicans need to convince them that Romney can chart a better path.

Create positive images and sound bites

Republicans are losing most popularity contests; many voters see them as too shrill and inflexible. Angry and scornful jabs only add fodder for Democratic commercials.

The convention offers the party a chance to redefine itself and connect with the self-described conservatives who outnumber liberals almost 2 to 1 in most national polls. Spirited speeches and captivating images can bring home positive messages that resonate well: Get the economy back on track and rely on the American people more than the government.

Steal a page from Bill Clinton's playbook

Much like 1992, the central theme of the election will be: "It's the economy, stupid!" Voters say that the economy and jobs are the central issues in the campaign, and they aren't happy with the way things are going. Convention 2012 should focus on the economy and the need for a new direction.

Although most voters seem unaware of it, Romney offered an economic plan – a 160-page book with policy details, charts, and testimonials – last September. The plan lists 59 proposals, including five bills and five executive orders ready for Inauguration Day. Republicans should outline Romney's plan in succinct, sharp sound bites that can resonate in the fall.

I fully expect that Republicans will spend much of their time in Tampa casting blame. Significant majorities of Americans say things are on the wrong track, and the convention speakers will surely remind them.

But while Republicans have the nation's attention and can write their own script, they should focus their prime-time coverage on explaining their alternative vision and giving voters positive reasons to vote Republican in November.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.