Thinking back on this busy week, what worked and what didn’t at the GOP Convention?
The convention itself appeared better thought out and executed than the Boston conclave for the Democrats. Even the physical set was far more imposing, especially the final-night presidential platform and the Fred Thompson-narrated introductory video. The convention speakers mixed positive and negative messages well, for the most part; by contrast, the Democrats were oddly obsessed with muting the Bush-bashing that would have thrilled the activists and most of the people watching at home. Governor Arnold and Mayor Rudy gave superb addresses, and President Bush–not always a dependable public speaker–rose to the challenge, especially in the final quarter of his talk. The party also impressively communicated its central theme for Bush’s reelection: Bush is the leader for the war on terror and Kerry is not. Sept. 11 and the New York location provided overt and subconscious reinforcement.
The protestors were a ready-made diversion for the news media, providing as they did a more immediate counterpoint to yet another scripted convention. While some demonstrators would have shown up anywhere, five-to-one Democratic New York was a nurturing environment for anti-Bush sentiments–and the Republicans asked for it. That’s not all. John McCain’s speech was flat and unenthusiastic, and the Bush twins were nothing short of embarrassing. Zell Miller came across as excessively angry, though he won some fans for threatening to duel the overbearing Chris Matthews–our money’s on Miller if the duel happens. Dick Cheney was featured on-camera entirely too much, given his low popularity; his facial expressions made us wonder if he was trying out for a revival of “Grumpy Old Men.” Predictably, the vice president’s speech was wooden, with Cheney as relieved as his audience when it was over.
This summer marked a turning point in media coverage of the conventions. Not only did ABC, CBS, and NBC cut coverage back, but voter polarization also transformed the viewing habits of Americans. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, it was considered good form for citizens to watch both parties’ conventions, so that one could be fully knowledgeable about current events. Now, the audience for each convention appears overwhelmingly composed of partisans and ideologically sympathetic independents. Thus, the more liberal CNN won the ratings battle for the Democratic convention among the all-news channels while conservative FOX achieved a TV first: the cable news channel attracted more viewers than CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC put together, at least for some evenings of GOP convention week. Many Republicans and conservatives simply do not trust the non-FOX networks anymore, regarding them as inherently biased against conservatives. Our guess is that this pattern will become the norm for major political coverage in the future.