The brief disruption caused by Ron Paul’s delegates at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday no doubt triggered memories among party veterans of floor fights from a rapidly receding past.
Once, conventions were full of such maneuvering. In Paul’s case, the protest had to do with the adoption of rules intended to tamp down the influence of insurgent candidates.
But in recent decades, nominating conventions have taken on a different role. They have evolved into elaborately scripted events in which battles over delegates and rules have no place.
What are conventions about, then?
For the presidential nominees, they are about a political commodity called “bounce.” That’s what Mitt Romney will be after in tonight’s acceptance speech.
Even though other aspects of the convention are not getting television coverage, the speech will give Romney a clear shot at reaching his target audience, not the party faithful on the convention floor, but swing voters in swing states like Ohio, watching television in their living rooms.
Coming out of the convention, Romney and his team will try to build on the themes outlined in the speech. In other words, they want a “bounce” in their polling numbers coming out of Tampa, generating momentum as the fall campaign gets under way.
There is plenty of drama in this. Polling earlier in the campaign showed that the more voters knew about Romney, the less they liked him. So, besides themes, Romney must also come up with a personal narrative that is appealing to middle-class, middle-income voters who are still making up their minds.
Modern-day nominating conventions also fulfill other important party-building functions.
Short speeches from the podium serve to introduce new faces to delegates, the media and some television viewers. More-established party figures and officeholders get their chances, too, shaping their stories to fit Romney’s rise to power, and, in doing so, establishing unity among factions after a long and divisive primary campaign.
Like analysts who examined pictures of public gatherings in the Soviet Union to see who was in and who was out, convention delegates and the media analyze who gets a speaking role and who doesn’t, and judge accordingly.
So, Ron Paul is out, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in. Nowhere in sight are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
In recent conventions, Republican Party leaders also have been concerned about building what they often call “the big tent.” Realizing that the demographics of the country are shifting, they showcase minorities, hoping to make up lost ground among blocs of voters that historically favor Democrats. The party also showcases women delegates and speakers, hoping to build support among women voters, who also lean toward President Obama.
More, conventions provide a setting to reward and rally the party faithful, the delegates and alternates who will soon return to the phone banks, fundraising drives and door-to-door campaigning. As much as campaigns rely on television and the Internet, many experts say that person-to-person contact or contact in small, neighborhood groups are the most effective ways to reach voters.
The term for all the electronic messages is “clutter,” and the goal of any campaign is to cut through it. The convention is a good place to rally the troops for the tough cutting ahead.
Much of this work takes place at delegation breakfasts. Ohio’s delegation gets “A” list speakers, such as close relatives of the nominee or figures prominent in the party. Delegation breakfasts are also places where rising stars can work the tables, taking advantage of the crowd gathered to hear big-name speakers.
Reduced prime-time television coverage and Hurricane Isaac both interfered with the GOP’s plans this week in Tampa.
But a shortened convention was still held, devoted to the important new roles nominating conventions have assumed.
The biggest event is Romney’s speech tonight, his chance to reach over the heads of the delegates, party leaders and journalists and project himself into the living rooms of the swing voters who will decide the election. Forget the glitz in the convention hall. Romney should imagine himself at a diner in Steubenville.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.