Not since the Ford-Reagan contest for the 1976 Republican nomination has a party convention started with any doubt about its outcome. Conventions have evolved from decisionmaking bodies to television pageants. Nevertheless, they deserve attention.
In the case of the Republican National Convention, which gets into full swing today after Monday's events were delayed by what is now hurricane Isaac, Mitt Romney stands to benefit in a couple of ways.
On the last night – now Thursday night, his acceptance speech in Tampa, Fla., will enable him to speak at length to a large national audience. Until now, he hasn't had that chance. If average voters have made his acquaintance at all, it's usually been through eight-second sound bites. Although anyone can watch his speeches on the Internet or C-SPAN, few actually do so.
He did have 20 debates with other GOP candidates, but these didn't let him show his mettle as the potential leader of the free world. The format kept him from talking for more than a minute at a time; and even then, he was often trading "gotcha" lines with Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. By national television standards, the audiences were modest. The highest-rated debate got 7.6 million viewers.
A lot more people watch acceptance speeches: Four years ago, more than 38 million tuned in for each speech by Barack Obama and John McCain. From a campaign perspective, such a setting is ideal. For the better part of an hour, there are no rivals or reporters in the way.
Of course, Mr. Romney may have to share primetime coverage this week with hurricane Isaac. But even if a worst-case scenario shifts the focus of Romney's spotlight moment, a shorter speech, appropriately sensitive to Isaac's hit on New Orleans could still help Romney's public perception.
Romney can take this opportunity to introduce himself to a large swath of the electorate. "Introduce" is the right word here, as polls show that many Americans still know little about him. He can show his compassion and people-over-politics priorities by focusing on a potentially storm-tossed Gulf Coast.
He can also talk about his record in business and government, his issue positions, and his family background. This information will be familiar to political junkies, but it will be new to millions of viewers. If Romney presents himself well, many of them will see him not as a flip-flopper or corporate greedhead, but as a wise problem solver ready for the Oval Office.
(The president will give his own acceptance speech a few days later, but he will get less of a boost than his challenger. He has been in the news for the past 3-1/2 years, and one more speech will have little effect on what Americans think about him.)
A good convention can also help Romney by energizing his party.
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.
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."