Not So Irrelevant After All

A lot has been written recently about the supposed irrelevance of the parties’ conventions to modern politics. This year’s experience, though, seems to show that the convention is alive and well as an important political milestone, albeit somewhat transformed.

Both conventions played important roles for their respective parties, both internally and externally. The Democrats needed their convention to heal the rift between the Clinton and Obama forces that developed during the primaries. Toward that end, Obama ceded large chunks of the convention to the Clintons; they responded by endorsing his candidacy with reasonable enthusiasm. The potential for lingering division mostly dissipated.

The Democrats also made effective use of what the modern convention has largely become: an eight-hour prime-time infomercial. Obama’s relentlessly hyped acceptance speech before an adoring stadium crowd was seen by 37 million people, which seemed a remarkable number at the time. Its impact was limited, perhaps, by the fact that Obama had little to say that was new or interesting, but the convention was plainly effective, as Obama moved out to as much as an eight-point lead in the polls.

To the surprise of nearly everyone, the Republicans’ convention turned out to be even more important than the Democrats’. The Republicans needed to unify their party too, but for different reasons; not because of a lingering rift between supporters of John McCain and, say, Mitt Romney, but on account of the generally dispirited condition of the party’s base. At the same time, the Republicans needed an opportunity to get their message before the American people without the mediation of pro-Obama news media. Their convention succeeded admirably on both counts, in part, but not entirely, because of McCain’s selection of Governor Palin.

In the end, it was the Republicans who were watched by more television viewers than any previous convention, and the voters liked what they saw. Not only was Obama’s post-convention bounce blunted, McCain has now moved into the lead in most polls. The campaign should now take on a familiar pattern: Obama will have the edge when voters are learning about the campaign from newspapers, magazines or television, and McCain will have the advantage when voters actually see the candidates perform. The debates will therefore be critical, but, this year at least, no more so than the parties’ conventions.

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