The drama in national political conventions was removed many years ago when both parties gradually went to the primary system to award delegates. This replaced the corrupt, though far more interesting, practice of party bosses in smoke-filled rooms making many of these decisions at the last minute. This had the benefit of providing an element of suspense to these quadrennial meetings which is utterly absent today, resulting in higher television ratings.
Despite this lack of suspense, the reality is that both parties still rely on these contrived "shows" to get their message out to voters. Politics isn’t salient to most people most of the time, and the massive free media coverage the major television networks provide is indispensable in each party’s effort to capture the attention of the vast majority of people who don’t live and breathe politics every day. For that reason, both parties do, or should do, all they can to maximize interest in their convention in order to reach as many people as possible during this fleeting window of opportunity. In this endeavor, the Romney convention fell woefully short.
Nate Silver has written a piece in which he presents data that indicate a 68% correlation between a television ratings and "convention bounce", and that a statistically significant amount of a candidate’s bounce can be explained by those ratings:
In laymen’s terms: The greater the number of viewers, the greater the convention bounce. Even though the sample size is small, there’s no reason to doubt this conclusion since it’s consistent with common sense. Assuming we can agree on the proposition that more convention viewers translates into a greater convention bounce, shouldn’t the Romney campaign have endeavored to attract as many viewers as possible, especially in a year in which the Democrat convention follows the Republican convention which will likely erode, perhaps even eliminate, any convention bounce the Mittster receives? A rhetorical question, I know, but apparently not for Team Mitt.
In a recent post, Stacy noted that 17 million fewer viewers tuned in to night two of the GOP convention than did four years ago — a staggering 41% drop. And this after viewership on night one was about the same as four years ago. Night three wasn’t much better, as Mr. Etch-a-Sketch drew about 9 million less viewers than John McCain in 2008. Overall, as Silver notes, ratings for the final two nights of the convention were down about 30%. That’s huge. Some of the fall off is predictable, and can be attributed to such mundane factors as the overall decline in the importance of television, Hurricane Isaac, etc., etc. But I can’t see a scenario where these factors, even if combined, could explain any more than a small fraction of the loss in viewers from one convention to the next.
The fact is there’s simply little excitement or interest in Romney. Conservatives don’t trust him, and many consider the Mittster to be little more than a "placeholder candidate" (myself included). Persuadable blue collar Democrats and Independents, who’ve suffered as much as anyone under Obama, remain deeply suspicious of Romney (fairly or unfairly — it doesn’t matter which) and view him as a fabulously rich corporate raider with whom they have nothing in common. Romney’s handlers labored mightily to soften this image and show Mitt’s warm and fuzzy side at the convention, but they don’t seem to have grasped the fact that in order to persuade people, you must first get them to pay attention.
In Thursday night’s interview with Sean Hannity, Governor Palin noted that the Mittster needs to "quit preaching to the choir" at Fox News and expand his appeal to those blue collar workers — the so-called Reagan Democrats — who generally live their lives conservatively and don’t consider themselves political animals:
"We need to talk to the independents out there in America, the hard-core patriotic American who wants a job," she told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, adding that the Republican presidential nominee has to reach out as well to "Reagan Democrats who are not obsessed with partisanship" and want to know, as President Ronald Reagan used to say, "that our best days are in front of us."
"That’s who we need to reach," she said.
The Nielsen data underscore Governor Palin’s concerns. While Fox’s night three ratings were only down 2% from 2008, the ratings at the other networks were down dramatically for Romney’s speech:
Compared to the final night of the 2008 RNC it was a different story however. Fox News was just about flat compared to 2008, losing around -2% of its viewership, while NBC (-56%), ABC (-26%), CBS (-30%), CNN (-52%)and MSNBC (-25%) were down mid double digits.
Thus, Romney did fine with the Fox News viewers, the majority of whom will vote for the Republican candidate anyway, even a nominal Republican like Mitt Romney. But viewership plunged an average of 37% at the other 5 networks. Excluding MSNBC, these are the viewers Romney needed to reach out to and persuade. But he can’t persuade anyone unless he gives them a reason to tune in. He didn’t.
It’s inconceivable that Romney’s myriad consultants and handlers aren’t aware of Mitt inability to create enthusiasm or passion, yet they did nothing to compensate for this. They failed to reach out to, or even acknowledge, the Tea Party which is where all the excitement and passion on the right exists. More importantly, many of the Independents and Reagan Democrats to whom I referred above sympathize with the Tea Party movement. At the very least, they’re less than enamored with Obama.
And yet, as far as I can tell, the Mittster banned the phrase "Tea Party" from the dais in Tampa. Does anyone believe that Governor Palin, had she been allowed to address the convention in prime time, wouldn’t have generated more enthusiasm — and viewers – than anyone Mitt deemed worthy of such a speaking slot, including himself? I like Paul Ryan, but as The Week points out, Paul Ryan is no Sarah Palin:
The 2008 convention had one big attraction the 2012 one didn’t — Sarah Palin. "As a Republican National Convention speaker, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan isn’t nearly as much of a draw as Sarah Palin," says The Associated Press. Between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on the night when Ryan made his big debut as Romney’s running mate, there were 21.9 million viewers tuned into the nine broadcast and cable networks airing the action. Four years ago, when Palin burst onto the stage and into national prominence as Sen. John McCain’s veep candidate, there were 37.2 million Americans glued to their sets.
Think about this: Romney essentially conceded millions of viewers so that he could distance himself from Governor Palin and the Tea Party movement. That’s a hell of a price to pay. And for what? What’s the benefit? Is he trolling for Chris Matthews’ vote? Does he expect MSNBC to suddenly say nice things about His Mittness? I don’t get it. If there’s anyone who does, I’m all ears.
To be clear, I’m by no means suggesting a "Romney-Palin" ticket. (My personal opinion has always been that the further Governor Palin can distance herself from Romney and Romneyism, the better.) But had the Tea Party movement in general, and Governor Palin in particular, been given prominent roles at the convention, far more people would have tuned in to Mitt’s big show.
Here’s a random thought: How about 2008′s VP nominee delivering the introductory speech for 2012′s VP nominee. I’m certainly not as brilliant as the Mittster’s "expert" handlers, but wouldn’t something like that have created far more interest – and viewers – for his convention. To be sure, though Governor Palin would have undoubtedly brought in many more viewers, it would have been up to Ryan and Romney to keep them. Ryan may well have been successful. Romney? I have my doubts.
In any event I think it’s safe to assume that fewer convention viewers due to less enthusiasm in Romney will result in a smaller bounce for the GOP than should have been the case. Furthermore, this smaller bounce will be more difficult to maintain in the face of the inevitable bounce Obama will receive from next week’s Democrat convention. I don’t see how this can possibly benefit Republicans in November.