The conventional wisdom on conventions is just plain wrong

The Week

These week-long political infomercials reliably fail to sway undecided voters or offer any tangible plans for the future of American governance

The eight most dishonest words in the English language are I hate to say I told you so. Two weeks ago, I wondered whether national nominating conventions had any relevance at all in today's news and communications environment. After a fortnight of pontification, confusion, and media saturation, the answer is… no.

That's not just my opinion, either. Gallup conducted a survey of more than 1,000 adults over the two days following the end of the Democratic National Convention to determine which convention had the most impact. In practically every measure, the conventions produced no net change in anticipated voter behavior. After the Republican convention, 40 percent said they'd be more likely to vote for Mitt Romney, while 38 percent said less likely, with 21 percent saying the convention had no real impact at all. For Democrats, the numbers are 43/38/20, respectively. Both sets of numbers are within the 4 percent margin of error, producing a complete wash.

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Conventions used to serve the purpose of cutting through the media filters so that undecided voters could see candidates for themselves and decide on their vote. But Gallup's data on independents shows that such voters were largely unswayed by the conventions. The Democratic convention produced a 39/39 split among unaffiliated voters (half said they were more likely to vote for Obama, and half said less), while the GOP convention had a three-point positive edge, 36/33 — still well within the margin of error. Furthermore, fewer people watched the conventions at length this year, with only 55 percent of Gallup's respondents saying they'd watched "a great deal" or "some" of the Democratic convention, and 51 percent for the GOP convention. Those are the lowest ratings from Gallup for nominating conventions in 12 years.

Let's skip the self-serving celebrations of nominating conventions and demand that candidates address the real issues with real plans for solving them.

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The speeches didn't exactly move the needle, either — at least not those by the nominees. Only 43 percent rated Barack Obama's speech "excellent" or "good," just 5 points higher than Mitt Romney's 38 percent. Both candidates scored a 16 percent combined "poor" or "terrible" rating, while roughly a quarter of respondents didn't see either speech. In contrast, 56 percent rated Bill Clinton's speech positively, perhaps setting up an uncomfortable contrast between the two most recent Democratic presidents. 

Even for those who did tune in to see the conventions and the nominees, the speeches seemed at times disconnected from the concerns of voters who may still be struggling with their choice. Mitt Romney's speech, for example, never mentioned the war in Afghanistan — despite Romney's repeated criticism of Obama's leadership on that issue. In part, this omission stemmed from the need for Romney to introduce himself as a relative newcomer to most Americans, as well as to focus attention on the core issues of jobs and the economy. Still, the absence of any reference to war by a Republican presidential nominee caught the attention of the media, and with Americans fighting and dying on the other side of the world, the omission surely seemed curious to some voters.

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But if that disregard gave voters a sense of disconnect, then the entire Democratic convention had to have bemused those few lightly-engaged voters tuning in for the first time. The first two nights featured speech after speech on abortion and contraception — two issues that don't make even the bottom of pollsters' lists of voter priorities in this election. Viewers were treated to repeated reminders that Osama bin Laden got justice delivered unto him in May 2011, which is certainly fair as a reminder of Obama's track record in office, but isn't terribly relevant in September 2012. Two of the final night's featured speakers, Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, criticized the Iraq War despite the fact that both had voted for it in 2003, a point made this past weekend on MSNBC by Jeremy Scahill of The Nation — not exactly a bastion of conservative perspective. 

Obama's speech was even worse. Despite the chronically high levels of unemployment in the recovery that began in June 2009, the word "unemployment" never appeared once in his speech. Nor did Obama outline any specific agenda for a second term, which would be of the most interest to undecided voters. Prior to the speech, Obama's two most visible campaign figures, David Axelrod and Stephanie Cutter, raised expectations that the acceptance speech would roll out a new proposal for entitlement reform. Instead, the speech was so bereft of detail and substance that The Washington Post editorial board scolded President Obama for not delivering on his promise to speak "hard truths." "If Mr. Obama has a plan," the editorial concluded, "Americans who listened Thursday don't know how he would achieve it."

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Finally, thanks to the foresight of convention schedulers, the fortnight of irrelevancy ended abruptly just hours after Obama left the stage in Charlotte. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the U.S. economy only added 96,000 jobs in August, well below the 125,000 to 150,000 needed to keep up with population growth each month. The jobless rate fell to 8.1 percent, but only because 368,000 people left the workforce — almost four people for every new job added. The percentage of the population in the workforce fell to a 31-year low of 63.5 percent, a sharp decline from the 65.7 percent at the start of the recovery. If the civilian population participation rate was the same today, the unemployment rate would be 11.2 percent.

Perhaps in the next electoral cycle, we can skip all of the self-serving celebrations of nominating conventions and demand that candidates — especially those now in office — address the real issues with real plans for solving them.

SEE MORE: Obama's convention bounce: What it means for the race

Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.

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