USNews Thomas Jefferson Street Blog  —  July 24, 2012

Why Political Conventions Still Matter

July 24, 2012

There’s a lot of grousing among the political insider class about the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions to be held in Tampa and Charlotte, N.C.

“Boring”, “cut and dried”, “canned speeches”, “no drama Obama”, “scripted Romney”, “watching paint dry”, are phrases that have become familiar over the last few months in Washington, D.C. watering holes. The press doesn’t want to cover them, the lobbyists don’t want to attend them, the fundraisers are having a heck of a time funding them.

People are asking: Are conventions dead, are they useless, are they more trouble than they’re worth, will they be reduced even further to just a couple of days?

As much as we cynics believe that these conventions will not matter, recent history suggests it may be otherwise. More Americans watched the two conventions in 2008 than in any year since 1960. President Barack Obama’s speech drew 27.7 million households and 38.4 million viewers. John McCain drew 28.3 million households and 38.5 million viewers, with Sarah Palin nearly equaling those numbers.

I doubt that those audiences will be matched this year, just as I doubt that we will see a November turnout as high as 2008. But you still will have widespread attention paid by the news media. After all, we have to write about something ,and the talking heads have to talk about something!

Despite the pared down coverage of the conventions and the shorter time frame, this is one of the critical times when Americans pay attention to politics and can be convinced which candidate to support. As my friend the pollster Peter Hart often says, “the windows open at certain periods in a campaign and voters look out”—the conventions are one of those moments.

They may not be what they used to be, and their influence may wane, but don’t count them out quite yet for 2012.