Friday, September 7, 2012

Watching the Conventions

I just wanted to talk a little about the impossibility of getting a sense of the conventions.

What I did was: opening a tab to CSPAN when they gaveled the things in each day, so I was basically listening to it for the first couple of hours...then I would switch over to TV, but still with CSPAN, taking a short break for dinner (on the Tuesdays and Thursdays) and a longer one for my pickup basketball game (on both Wednesdays). Every once in a while I'd flip around to see what the cable nets were showing, but mostly I just stuck to CSPAN. But not just CSPAN: I also had my twitter feed open throughout, so I was seeing what various reporters and pundits were saying, too.

But of course that's not how very many people at all experience the conventions.

A lot of reporters -- a whole lot of them -- were in the convention cities themselves. Those reporters were, mostly talking to people and looking for people to talk to. They weren't watching very many of the speeches, except for the headliners (presumably). Their convention was very different from anyone else's.

Then there's the typical high-interest voter -- not insane, top 1% interest, but normal high-interest. She's turning on one of the cable nets when she gets home from work...well, except for dinner, and dealing with the kids and the household. Eventually, however, she'll turn on MSNBC if she's a Democrat, or Fox if she's a Republican. And then get distracted by the kids or household stuff or a call from her mom or her husband needing to discuss something, and so she'll have seen ten minutes of pundits pontificating and maybe five of a speech. If she's lucky, she'll wind up seeing maybe one and a half of the big speeches -- most of he party's nominee and good-sized chunks, say, of Clinton and Michelle Obama. She might download one of the speeches later that she missed, if she's really into it. That's our high-interest voter.

Low interest voters? They'll notice that it's convention week at some point, probably if they happen to be looking for something to watch during the broadcast hour. They'll hear a few sound bites on the radio news in the car, see some headlines when there's a TV set to Fox News at the gym or a restaurant, get some clip forwarded to them. If they turn on a morning show on the TV in the background while they get ready for work, they'll half-hear an interview with convention speakers; if they watch Leno or Conan, they'll hear an uptick in campaign jokes.

The problem is: how can you simultaneously get a sense of all of this? Well, you really can't. Just can't. And that's before trying to sort out exactly who all those voters are, and what they make of the various things that are being thrown at them...which depends on what's in their own heads. Which in turn is not only very different from the typical person commenting on the convention, but is very different across all those voters, even if we're most interested in the swing voters.

For the effects of the convention, there's really no substitute, that is, for waiting for the polls.

So in the meantime, what one can do is pick a slice of it and assess it for what it is. For me, this time around, it was the convention from the podium. Not from the broadcast anchor booth, or the cable nets, or how delegates experience it, but just from the podium. And I've tried, for the last couple of weeks, to be as careful as possible not to imply anything more than is appropriate from the vantage point that I'm using.

But I'm not confident I've stuck to that; it's actually very difficult to do. And so this post, as a reminder of just how limited any one perspective is on these events.

(Typos fixed)


  1. When you say "platform" you mean "podium" right?

    1. Yeah. Fixed.

      Another issue is that I've been writing two posts after the final speech every night, and today had to write one right after the jobs report...

  2. I played drinking games.

    On the R one, one drink for every colored person.

    On the D side, one drink for every good looking one and a shot for Kamala Harris.

    I got more drunk on the R one, sadly.

  3. ". . . there's really no substitute, that is, for waiting for the polls."

    On Thursday, before any of the big speeches, I'm almost sure I half-heard someone on TV announce that the Democratic Convention had already failed to produce a bounce in the polls. So I guess we don't have to wait.

  4. I think you can really see this sort of silly "analysis" taken to the extreme when you look at a lot of the reviews of Obama's speech. I thought it was a good one, in that it accomplished it goals of defending his record, attacking Romney on his weak points and speaking to a possible 2nd term. Sullivan had a whole run down of all sorts of reviews and a lot were quite negative. Most of those said that it didn't compare to the 2004 DNC speech or the 2008 race speech. But I see this more as evidence of the pack tendency by commentators to follow conventional wisdom than anything useful for determining how regular people viewed it. After all, what journalist/pundit/blogger who covers politics would not think Obama is boring by now, they've been listening him talk every day for years now! In addition, if you actually look at those two "great" speeches outside of them being "great", for reasons that are never really specified, what I see is something totally different. The 2004 speech was largely lifted from Obama's stump speech he had been giving for years as a State Senator. If you watch the 2008 Frontline specials "The Choice" about Obama they actually go back and interview his field director from efforts in the 90s and the guy tells a great anecdote about how he called his old buddies from those campaigns during the 2004 speech and the said the lines to each other along with Obama, they had heard it that many times it was still memorized. Secondly both of the speeches that commentators cite as being great where profoundly different speeches in different contexts making them pretty bad comparisons. The first was given by a national political unknown (thus with a very low bar) and was a pretty non-political speech (except for some parts about Kerry in the end) thus making it rather memorable in a series of highly political speeches. The big point I'd say, is that trying to rate the speech outside of subjective personal opinion is just kinda silly.

    1. In my opinion (and quite a few others I might add), the President's speech was more or less another State of the Union address than a nomination acceptance speech.

    2. I'll grant you that there was more policy stuff than in 2004 or the 2008 race speech, but I just don't think it makes sense to say its a state of the union speech. I don't recall W ever focusing on a Democrat as being "new" to foreign policy in one. Now, it's right that there was more points of his view on taxes, entitlements and global warming (and how that stacked up compared to the Mittster) but it still focused a lot on "why you should re-elect me" more than "pass this bill" which I think is the big determinant. My big point, which I guess I didn't make well, was that if he had done more "now the trumpet summons" type stuff, pundits would attack him for not giving enough specifics. Essentially, pundits and journalists want to show "Obama embattled" and will apply those lenses to whatever happens. So give specifics then you aren't being broad enough, give a broad vision and you have lost touch with regular folks etc.

      btw, thanks for the comment

      That said, what would you have liked to hear?

  5. I watched a lot of the Dem convention on C-Span with sidetrips to msnbc. The network coverage down to one hour a night is a travesty. Plus everyone uses the same pool camera, and the frequent cutaways to crowd shots were really annoying. I would have hated to try to build a speech with that going on. It was hard enough maintaining attention as a viewer.

    But I was impressed at how smoothly orchestrated it was and the pretty uniformly high quality of the speakers, with several outstanding ones. I did enjoy the videos, and the one with the young couple whose child needs heart operations but is nearing her lifetime insurance limit was powerful, especially when that family came on stage--the mother was very effective speaker.

  6. Nobody's watching these things. No reason to do so. They've long since slipped into irrelevancy, and this cycle's floor vote fiascoes pretty much cemented that irrelevancy. It's not like anybody pays attention to infomercials, afterall.

    I thought this might be the year somebody broke the mold on these things, but nobody's that thoughtful, I guess.

    1. Well, Anonymous, I watched.

      So I must be somebody, not nobody.

      I think you travel with the wrong crowd of trolls. Try the under-the-bridge group, I hear they get better TV reception.

    2. Well, yeah, and a few strange somebodys watch infomercials, too. ;-)

  7. One more thing: it's true that the effect on the electorate directly is unknowable, except possibly through the polls. But the convention stuff is leveraged by the campaign to its targets. However, the big effect of a convention with the energy of this one is on the Dems and Obama allies--and I don't think there's any question that the impact was very positive. So there's a multiplier effect when they get home and go to work on registration and turnout.

  8. I think in 1996 I was vaguely aware that Bob Dole somehow became the Republican nominee, and that Jack Kemp was VP, and that Clinton was obviously going to win. I was 11 at the time. That's the last year in which I could classify myself as a "low-interest" voter.

    Now I wouldn't even know how to perceive reality from that vantage point. My friend said a few years ago that 80% of the votes are random -- people voting based on habitual affiliation or on 2-3 statements they overheard out of 1,000,000 made during the campaign season.

    On an unrelated note, I've built a 2012 election game if anyone is interested in trying it out:

  9. I saw only the Clinton and B. Obama speeches on you tube after reading many blog analyses including yours. Actually, I only really listened to the speeches as I was doing other work at the time.

    Although I liked Clinton's speech (and I do like those sorts of policy speeches), I didn't think it was as good as describe by everyone, although it was perfect for what the campaign wanted from him. And I thought Obama's speech was much better than what people thought. Expectations can play a big part in how people perceive things.

  10. Started to watch, but couldn't stick with either broadcast for long.

  11. Obama's speech reminded us of a startling fact we routinely overlook: the number of seriously wounded in Afghanistan/Iraq outnumbers fatalities by an 8:1 ratio; as recently as WWII that ratio was reversed, and progressively worse going back further. Back of the envelope, assume total lifetime (30 year) care for those 49,000 seriously wounded will average $10 M per; that's $500 B over 30 years or $16 B per year - not a budget killer but twice the ACA savings baked into the undoubtedly rosy CBO projections.

    So "not being surrender monkeys" in Afghanistan has very different implications today - in a Tea Party sense - than it did even 60 years ago. Which leads to a pertinent question: what entity in the party is responsible for forcing the rank-and-file to come to terms with changes that challenge their sacred cows? If not the convention or platform, then who?

    As a slight aside, it seems to me that this is, really, the great danger of partisan media, in particular the right wing version. Who cares if they say bad things about liberals! The problem is that such media places way too high a premium on orthodoxy, forcing decision-makers to bow to inertia and fear of change, in a way that may feel good today but will exact a tremendous price tomorrow.

    Getting back to the convention, though - if a convention, and platform, are not the place to break through, to clarify how we're going to move forward into the changing century, to simply stop the tail from wagging the dog - then when will that happen? The third hour of the Rush Limbaugh show on the second Tuesday in April?

    One can dream, I suppose.

    1. Things change when incumbent politicians get thrown out of office.

      That is all.

      Conventions and "platforms" clearly mean little to the incumbent types running them, as those floor fiascoes demonstrated.

      You want change? Run off incumbents.

  12. I do agree on your PoV but still a lot can be illustrated.


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