09/11/2012 09:43 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

The Unconventional: The Political Conventions in Perspective

Now that the Republican and Democratic national conventions are over, it's time to see what impact they had on the truly independent voter. And, the answer is very little.

That's because most independent voters are "unconventional". They don't watch the conventions or only catch snippets when they are channel surfing and forget to hit the "change channels" button on their remote control quickly enough.

Conventions are not what they once were. Today they serve three primary purposes: rallying the faithful, gaining lots of earned (free) media, and presenting a highly scripted and choreographed "reality TV" version of the nomination and acceptance process.

Back in the day, the convention drama was authentic -- centered first on the roll call of the states and the horse trading and floor fights to determine who would be picked to be president and then concentrated on the successful nominee for president selecting his vice-presidential running mate. Joe Nocera recalls those earlier conventions in his excellent Sept. 4 New York Times column. Conventions used to be more like sporting events with the outcomes determined on the playing field. Now they are anticlimactic -- three-day-long infomercials.

The Republican Party convention in Tampa produced only a very small bounce for Romney. It appears the Democratic Party's convention in Charlotte produced a better one for Obama. As history has shown, the bounces don't matter very much -- Dukakis, Kerry and McCain each got substantial bounces after their conventions. You know the rest. The bounces matter even less now than ever because there are so many fewer undecided voters in this national election cycle than in past elections -- most of the polls showing single digits and some indicating low single digits of undecided voters.

In his wrap up on PBS' coverage at the end of the first day of the Democratic convention, David Brooks commented that he was a "bit puzzled" because he felt that little had been done to reach out beyond the base and that almost all of the time was spent in highly partisan rhetoric. This was not a puzzle. It was actually the puzzle piece.

That's because going into both conventions there was an enthusiasm gap among the faithful. The gap on the Democratic side related to whether President Obama had accomplished enough and if the President was still hopeful and committed to change enough for his supporters to march into the election for his cause. The gap on the Republican side was that that they needed to know that Romney was conservative, "religious" and human enough to be ardently supported. The conventions answered those questions resoundingly in the affirmative in both instances.

One of the things that two conventions did was to crystallize what the parties stand for. The theme for the Republican convention was "individual striving" while the theme for the Democratic convention was "shared responsibility". The agendas and speakers at both conventions did a good job of reinforcing and amplifying those themes and getting the desired message across to their core constituencies.

The message in the bottle from each convention, however, was the party platform. Although the platforms weren't center stage like the keynoters and the candidates, they made the fullest and most complete statements about who was at the convention and what they stood for. The Republican platform didn't explicitly say "strong conservative' and the Democratic platform didn't say "strong progressive/liberal". They didn't have to because their respective contents screamed it out.

The Republican platform was most notable for what it included. The Democratic for what it excluded. The Republican platform included the standard fare such as repealing Obamacare and tax reduction. But far more interesting were items such as calling for: the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in granting licenses to TV and radio stations, a potential return to the gold standard; and, the public display of the Ten Commandments.

The original version of the Democratic platform excluded references to "God" and "Jerusalem" which had been in platforms from previous conventions. That created some media brouhaha led President Obama to ask to have the words inserted into the platform. They were. But, as Julian Pecquet and Pete Kasperowicz pointed out in their Sept. 5 article for The Hill, it took three voice votes of the delegates in the convention hall and there was "some grumbling in the audience."

For better or worse, the platforms are in place and the convention interlude is definitely over. Now it's back to business, or should we say, politics as usual.

As Erik Wasson reported in The Hill on Sept. 6, as the Democratic convention wound up Congressional Republicans were already "... demanding that the President meet the Friday deadline for laying out how his administration will carry out the spending cuts from sequestration... " And, on Sept. 7, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the August job numbers and they were not very good (96,000 jobs and an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent). As Jared Bernstein noted in his Sept. 7 Huffington Post blog, "After two weeks of lofty speeches about vision, family, who gets it and who doesn't, there's nothing like a monthly jobs report to bring you back to the reality of the economic moment."

Yes, reality has intruded its ugly head again. The "magical mystery tour" called the conventions will soon be a distant memory. And, it's now that the independent voter will start to pay attention to the national election campaign and candidates for our highest office. In these final sixty days or so, the unconventional will become the "engageable", then the persuadable, and finally the decided. The results of the political conventions will have virtually no influence on that process, however.

The factors that will matter in the persuasion and decision-making process for those few voters who are still undecided at this point will include: their personal economic situation; the presidential debates; the relative "likeability" of each presidential candidate; a particular "hot button" issue; and, most importantly, which of the candidates they perceive to be the "lesser of two evils."

Political science research tells us that many of the voters who are uncommitted at this juncture are "alienated voters." As such, if they vote at all, they will cast negative ballots. They won't vote for a candidate. Rather they will vote against a candidate. That's why we can expect both campaigns to continue to focus on trying to make their opponent the "least credible choice" rather than attempting to make their candidate the "most credible choice."

So, as we move into the home stretch of the 2012 presidential election race let's summarize and put conventions in perspective. They play a very definite role which is, as Jonathan Bernstein highlighted in his Sept. 6 blog for The Washington Post after Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic convention, "... to remind voters who 'should' be supporting a party but haven't quite realized it... to come back home." That role is not to make new converts. Or, to put it another way, conventions are not for the unconventional.

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