I returned to Chicago yesterday from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. After 13 hours of uninterrupted sleep, a few observations:
1) The Democrats are finally starting to understand that politics, for most voters, comes from the gut, not from the head. The average voter is much less interested in policy statements than how a candidate or party makes him or her feel.
I was in the hall for two of the three nights, and everything seemed geared toward maximum emotional impact. Michelle Obama’s speech emphasized: I’m a mom, I’m a wife, we’re a normal family, we’re just like you. Most importantly, she sought connection with the overwhelming majority of the voting public along economic lines: without mentioning Mitt Romney’s name, Mrs. Obama adroitly noted that when Barack picked her up for a date, the door of his modest car was rusted through, something we surely will never hear from Ann Romney. And her line about how it’s not how much you earn, it’s what good you do hammered the point home.
When the Democrats brought in Gabrielle Giffords to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday night, I nearly cried. I’m sure there were others who shot right past almost.
Everything was perfectly scripted to provoke emotional triggers, and I think it largely succeeded. No high-minded logical arguments, no mind-numbing 23-point plans. If anybody could boil down the key message and tone of the Democratic Convention this year, it was basically this: We’re much more like you than the Republicans are (therefore we care about more about you than they do), and we’re nicer. The red meat for the delegates (and there was plenty, particularly in the speech of former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland) was largely confined to time slots that weren’t widely televised.
And while President Obama’s speech was panned by many pundits (and by me) as providing nothing we hadn’t heard before, its purpose, I believe, has been largely misunderstood. The president wasn’t attempting to impress the people in the hall. He was attempting to restore the emotional connection he forged with the voters in 2008, most of whom haven’t really been paying much attention since. The people I talked to who were in the building unanimously agreed with me that the speech wasn’t Obama’s best and that it was all basically rehashed, old sound bytes. But the people I talked to who saw it on TV really liked it, and that’s what mattered, because they are the people the president needs to reconnect with and win over again. You don’t use a speech to 35 million people to preach to the converted. If the speech was old hat to me and the other people I talked to on the way out of Time Warner Cable Arena, it wasn’t necessarily so to the viewing audience at home.
2) The Democrats won the two-week convention period and did so handily. Polling in the wake of the Republican event in Tampa demonstrated very little of a bump for Romney; to the degree that he got one at all, he went from trailing 49-47 to tied 48-48. While the effects of the Democratic convention will need a few days to fully develop, coming out of the conventions ahead, as he will, is a win for Obama. Very few candidates who aren’t ahead after both conventions are over ultimately win the election. I’d have to do some research to say this for sure, but I think the last one was Harry Truman in 1948. And Mitt Romney is no Harry Truman.
I’ve been saying for weeks that if Romney didn’t come out of the conventions ahead, he would lose the election (barring some unforeseen catastrophe for Obama). I see nothing at this point that changes my analysis.
3) The Democrats will make bigger gains in the U.S. House than people expect. I was fortunate to attend a Democratic briefing on the upcoming House races. Of course, I immediately dismissed a lot of what they said as biased and overly optimistic, and naturally so: you don’t tell a group of potential donors, “Hey, there’s no way in hell we’re going to reclaim the House this year, so you can put your money away, boys and girls.” But they did offer some convincing polling and fundraising statistics that led me to conclude there is at least an outside possibility they could wrest the House from the Republicans. Personally, I still wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that happening (despite their rather optimistic claims), but there are some races that are polling more competitively than anyone expected at the start of the cycle.
I’m not going to say any more, because it was a closed briefing and I don’t want to say anything that could tip off the other side. But I will say that I came out of the room slightly more optimistic than when I entered. I think the battle for the U.S. House will be closer than expected and that the final spread will be in the single digits.