It's party time - but without all the drama

By Peter Huck

North Carolina delegate Steve Malay dons his hat at the Republican National Convention.  Photo / AP
North Carolina delegate Steve Malay dons his hat at the Republican National Convention. Photo / AP

"That's the tragedy of the rich, they don't need anything." The sentiments are from Hollywood director Preston Sturges. But the problem may just as well describe Mitt Romney's Herculean task. The GOP presidential candidate arrived at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week with one overriding mission: to reintroduce himself not as the multi-millionaire chief executive of Bain Capital, but as someone average American voters could relate to.

At the start of the week things seemed promising. Hurricane Isaac, barrelling in from the Caribbean, looked like it would miss Tampa. And a Washington Post-ABC News Poll put Romney and Barack Obama neck-and-neck, with the President at 46 per cent and Romney at 47 per cent.

Predictions that the Todd Akin "legitimate rape" scandal would drain support from the GOP looked, so far, not to have happened and a national polling trend, evident for months, remained firm. The Post-ABC poll showed 72 per cent of voters consider the ailing economy to be the major issue.

But there's still that rich guy problem. The Post-ABC poll suggested 60 per cent of independent voters, who political wisdom decrees are vital to any victory, believe Romney would lean towards the rich if he wins office.

Democrat attack ads, painting Romney as part the problem, not the solution, are having an impact. Romney has to spin his wealth - estimated at US$230 million ($288 million) by Forbes magazine - so he seems a success story voters can emulate, a tall order when many are railing against the "1 per cent". This week's Republican love fest in Tampa gave Romney, aided by legions of spinmeisters, his best shot at rebranding. Isaac, which diluted primetime media coverage as networks shifted many news anchors and journalists on to hurricane watch in Louisiana, may have hampered this and by mid-week Team Romney were downplaying earlier hopes of a 5 to 11 per cent "bounce", a leap in national polls as candidates come out of their party conventions.

Once upon a time conventions promised real drama. When the GOP held its last Florida convention, in Miami in 1972, they were upstaged by violent street clashes between police and anti-Vietnam protesters. In 1976, the heir apparent Gerald Ford was almost torpedoed by challenger Ronald Reagan. In 1992 Bill Clinton hit the Democratic Convention in third place. He won. Conventions still held out the prospect of political fireworks. Not today. Surprises are unwelcome.

A walk-out by supporters of libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, the GOP's loose cannon, failed to derail Romney's official nomination. America already knew Romney was the GOP guy just as Obama will be anointed at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, next week.

Conventions are "sound and fury ... signifying next to nothing", the New Yorker opined this week, "militarised zones" where "the occupying army speaks and writes millions upon millions of words" to a mostly indifferent public.

So why do the parties lavish time and money on conventions?

"Part of it's just tradition, it's self-perpetuating," says Sean Trende, senior elections analyst with RealClearPolitics. "I think if you were to start a political process today you wouldn't have conventions."

Nonetheless, Trende lists three reasons why the tradition endures. First, the convention is a massive networking event, where reporters, bloggers, delegates, politicians and party heavyweights rub shoulders. It allows aspiring party players to meet the old guard.

Second, it is the moment when a nominee is anointed. This is important for Romney as it elevates him on to the same national platform as Obama. It is a ritual where Romney can seem "presidential", or so Republicans hope. Ultimately, the convention is a carefully orchestrated grooming process.

Finally, the convention acts as an infomercial. The days of continuous network TV coverage are long gone. Nonetheless, each day's events spew out on cable and through electronic media: when Obama ran in 2008 daily tweets averaged 1.25 million. Today it is 400 million, and Republicans boasted their party would be the most wired convention ever, although it is a GOP act of faith that older Republicans will tweet. The idea is to build the brand and sign up newcomers. And old media usually covers keynote speeches.

Broad strokes matter. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the GOP's keynote speaker, and Marco Rubio, the junior Republican senator from Florida who introduced Romney, are Tea Party darlings, as is Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate. Fiscal conservatism and small government are key GOP planks.

Conventions also serve as political barometers. Tampa signalled a marked shift to the right.

It felt as if the Tea Party, not Romney, had been anointed, a trend reflected by the [northern] summer documentary hit 2016: Obama's America, which depicts a "United States of Islam", a socialist state that bleeds the rich, the far right's ultimate conspiracy nightmare.

"If Romney loses, Christie and Rubio will probably be among the frontrunners in 2016," says Trende. "Ryan too." The Democrats have Elizabeth Warren, a US Senate candidate in Massachusetts and a presidential prospect in 2016, and that older stager Bill Clinton, still able to galvanise the faithful.

A recent story on www.politico.com asked if conventions had "fizzled out". Preprogrammed, mostly ignored by TV, are they doomed to fade away much like Hollywood's Oscar ceremony, where TV viewership has steadily haemorrhaged?

Maybe. But this year Democrats hope to break the mould, retreating from what the man in charge, Steve Kerrigan, calls "closed-door, party-elite, pageantry displays". The idea is to be inclusive. Like the GOP, Democrats promise an interactive event. The public are invited to "CarolinaFest", outside the hall on day one, and the finale where Obama accepts his party's nomination. In contrast to Tampa, overt corporate sponsorship is barred.

That may be a nod to the "99 per cent", a constant theme as Obama blasts Romney as a corporate raider. Nonetheless, the Democrats will likely be as choreographed as Republicans. Special interests will lurk in the wings, although most corporate funding goes to campaigns via Super PACs. The Democrats will tick the same infomercial and schmoozing boxes. In an expensive event that even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggests is losing relevance - she advised Democrat pols to campaign instead - any unexpected drama may help. Democrats can only hope Obama will get his rock star mojo back - he wowed them at the 2004 convention - and ignite voters.

- NZ Herald

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