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Convention Role Reversal: Did Romney Put Obama on Defense?

We lay out the evidence.

First Lady Michelle Obama arrives to introduce husband US President Barack Obama before his acceptance to run for a second term as president at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 6, 2012 on the final day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC).Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Normally, the Republican and Democratic national conventions in America break down to a very simple binary: Incumbent presidents touting their record while challengers attack them.

Incumbents prefer to make the case for their victory in positive terms, cashing in on their record as a straightforward argument that things have gone well so far, and you don't change horses in the middle of the race. To do this, they trot out pillars of the community who can speak on their behalf - people like business owners and military veterans - and let those people speak firsthand, without polish or affectation, about how lovely it is to live under the incumbent's rule.

Challengers, on the other hand, usually make the case for their victory in negative terms, casting the incumbent's rule as incompetent and the incumbent politicians themselves as incontinent. They trot out disenchanted former members of the incumbent's party who can speak on their behalf, and let those people speak firsthand about how awful it was to have to defend someone who betrayed what were supposed to be their ideals, etc etc etc.

This year, the roles appeared to be reversed.

Why? Because in the absence of a clear-cut positive record, incumbent President Barack Obama appears to some observers to be running like a challenger, while Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney appears to be striking a more positive tone. This unconventional switch was reflected in the conventions themselves, as Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics reported:

Challenger conventions are also typically filled with bashing of the incumbent president. But Rice and Christie never mentioned Barack Obama; Martinez mentioned him once; Rubio, three times. This isn’t to say that Republicans went easy on the president (Paul Ryan in particular prosecuted the case against him). But they spent an awful lot of prime time talking about things other than Obama and their nominee.[...]

The Democratic convention, by contrast, was more like a typical challenger convention. Each speaker flayed Romney, and attempted to reintroduce their candidate. In part, this is an attempt to improve the president’s approval ratings; the very first poll from Gallup suggests that there could possibly be some success brewing here.

The reason for this seeming role reversal can be explained using a very simple hypothesis - namely, that Mitt Romney's convention put Barack Obama on the defensive to such a high degree that he was forced to use his convention to rebut both the charges made by Romney and the positive case for Romney's election. This does not bode well for Obama if true, considering that it suggests that Romney has already managed to control the discussion, and force the President to respond to him, rather than the usual order of things, which has the challenger responding to the incumbent.

Nevertheless, the evidence that the DNC was a massive exercise in defensive messaging is ample, and can be found by looking at three specific factors:

1. The identities of the Democratic speakers versus the identities of the Republican speakers.

2. The message advanced by the Democrats versus the message advanced by the Republicans.

3. The primetime schedules of the Democratic convention versus the primetime schedules of the Republican convention.

In each of these cases, one sees a clear point-counterpoint pattern to the Democrats' choices relative to the Republicans.

When it comes to the identities of each conventions' speakers, the names presented by the Democrats appear at first blush to not merely be a rebuttal, but an outright carbon copy of the Republicans' list, in that both Democrats and Republicans relied on business leaders and ex-opponents to make a large part of their case. For instance, where Republicans had former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis, Democrats had former Republican Governor Charlie Crist. Republicans had the founder of Staples. Democrats had the founder of Costco. Republicans had current Ohio Governor John Kasich. Democrats had former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. Republicans had their failed 2008 nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain. Democrats had their failed 2004 nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. And so on, and so on.

However, there were notable differences in the lineup as well, and most of them came in the form of groups who made the case for the Democrats, but who had no equivalents at the Republican convention. Washington interest group leaders such as Nancy Keenan of NARAL, and Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, were not matched by equivalent Republican power players like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform or Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity. Grassroots union leaders like Richard Trumka of the SEIU and Bob King of the UAW also had no equivalents on the Republican side - indeed, only grassroots-inspired candidates, but not the leaders of grassroots organizations, were given a slate at the RNC.

Furthermore, while Democrats also had their share of business leaders speaking on their behalf, they relied far more on speakers with modest backgrounds, who were nevertheless still beneficiaries of the Obama administration's policies, such as firefighter Doug Stern or stay-at-home mother Maria Ciano. A prime time slot even went to one of these supposedly average people - namely, the infamous Georgetown Law graduate Sandra Fluke, whose speech also had no isomorphic figure among the Republicans. Indeed, to the extent that Republicans used inspiring stories at their convention, they tended to let their candidates for public office tell them, as in the case of Utah Congressional candidate Mia Love.

To some extent, the absence of "Republicans saved my life" style stories is arguably unsurprising, given that Republican policies tend to favor allowing people to save their own lives, rather than crediting government policies with this achievement. What Republicans did have that Democrats lacked, however, was a series of speakers who credited Mitt Romney personally with being a positive influence on their lives. While many Democratic speakers argued that without the policies advanced by Barack Obama, they'd be worse off, the personal character of Obama himself remained a cipher. The last night of the RNC, by contrast, was almost entirely devoted to bolstering Mitt Romney's character.

There was one surprising omission on the Republican side, though, and that was the near total absence of military voices. Democrats, by contrast, gave the podium both to military veterans and to military officials themselves, with congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth and Veterans' Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki being the most representative examples of both.

The result is that the Democratic lineup looks more comprehensive than the GOP's, and has a larger degree of people included who could broadly be seen as representative of particular sectors of America. Considering the overwhelmingly negative nature of the Democrats' message, and its focus on excoriating the Republicans for being too exclusive, such a representative speakers' roster makes good political and rhetorical sense.

And speaking of the DNC's message, to the extent that it was consistent, it was seemingly meant to capitalize on all the weaknesses of the Republicans. The consistency of the message is an open question, however, since your read on the DNC may depend on which "DNC" you watched. As Rush Limbaugh noted after the first night of the convention:

There were two conventions. The two hours before the big network cameras started showing things it was the Democrat Party we know.  It was pedal to the metal abortion.  Auto bailout.  It was Republicans are Nazis, all that stuff.  Starting about 9 p.m., they started lying, and nothing that was said after 9 p.m., I don't think anybody believed.  I don't care who the speaker was.  I don't think they believed a word of what was said from 9 p.m. on.

Whether you believe Rush's uncharitable interpretation or not, the tonal shift he describes was quite notable, though it became less pronounced as the convention went on. However, in both the case of the pre-9 PM part of the convention and the case of the post-9 PM part of the convention, the message advanced by the DNC was almost complimentary to the one advanced by the RNC, both in terms of emphasis and in terms of tone.

For instance, with the exception of speeches by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, the RNC steered almost entirely clear of social issues, instead concentrating its fire entirely on the Democrats for their economic record and supposedly anti-achievement philosophy. The DNC, by contrast, devoted a huge chunk of its messaging to social issues in the pre-9 PM slots, and even went so far as to put an avowed pro-contraception crusader, the aforementioned Ms. Fluke, in prime time. As RCP puts it:

While Republicans studiously avoided cultural issues, the Democrats brought them to the forefront of their convention. The likely reason? They are concerned about the enthusiasm gap. This has been anecdotally on display all season. Obama famously failed to fill a sports arena at his campaign kickoff in Columbus. There is at the very least evidence that he would have been unable to fill the Panthers stadium last night had the weather forecast not prompted a change of venue.

Moreover, even in the case of speakers who mirrored the Republican speakers, the message was framed as a rebuttal. Compare this passage from former Democrat Artur Davis at the RNC...:

Some of you may know, the last time I spoke at a convention, it turned out I was in the wrong place.  So, Tampa, my fellow Republicans, thank you for welcoming me where I belong. We have a country to turn around. This week you will nominate the most experienced executive to seek the presidency in 60 years in Mitt Romney. He has no illusions about what makes America great, and he doesn't confuse the presidency with celebrity, or loftiness with leadership.

...with this passage from former Republican governor Charlie Crist at the DNC:

We face serious challenges in this country. We must create good middle-class jobs so we can have an economy built to last. We must rebuild our roads and bridges, and improve our public schools. And particularly important to me and my state is the challenge of saving Medicare and Social Security so we can keep our promise to seniors. But there are common sense solutions within our reach if we have leaders who are willing and enthusiastic to find common ground. No political party has a monopoly on that kind of leadership. But as a former lifelong Republican, it pains me to tell you that today's Republicans—and their standard-bearers, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan—just aren't up to the task. They're beholden to "my way or the highway" bullies, indebted to billionaires who bankroll ads and allergic to the very idea of compromise. Ronald Reagan would not have stood for that. Barack Obama does not stand for that. You and I won't stand for that.

Notice that both speeches are actually about Mitt Romney, but from radically different angles. For instance, while Crist's speech takes until the very end to mention Barack Obama, and then only mentions what Obama "does not stand for," not what he would stand for if elected, it spends a lot of time tearing down Mitt Romney. Davis' argument, by contrast, is entirely positive about what Romney does stand for, and doesn't mention Obama at all. This point-counterpoint element was in evidence in the candidates' support from the business community as well, in that business leaders at the RNC made the case that Mitt Romney was the best man for the job, while business leaders at the DNC made the case that America couldn't afford Mitt Romney, virtually without mentioning why Barack Obama would turn them a profit.

To top this defensive response off, there was Bill Clinton's epic, almost 50-minutes-long address the second night of the DNC, which was nothing if not a comprehensive, down-the-line rebuttal of everything Republicans had said at their convention, with barely a word said about Barack Obama's own achievements except to defend them. And quite aside from the form of the speech being a rebuttal, its placement on the schedule also made it structurally a rebuttal, given that Paul Ryan's speech on the second night of the RNC was widely seen as the most comprehensive indictment of Obama. The pattern is clear - Ryan attacks, Clinton defends.

And that was only the beginning of the ways in which the structure of the DNC's schedule served to combat the schedule of the RNC. To see the pattern here, one has to take note, firstly, of the speakers who served similar functions and secondly, of where those speakers were placed. A good place to start in this respect is the prime time lineup of both conventions, or with the post-9 PM speakers, who generally reflect the party's highest priority in terms of messaging.

The first night of the RNC saw overwhelming favor being given to two groups: up-and-coming candidates, and racially/ethnically diverse members of the GOP. Except for the speeches by Ann Romney and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, not a single white Republican spoke after 9 PM. Despite the diversity of this group, however, the message was mostly homogeneous: Republican policies will help all Americans, regardless of race or gender.

The first night of the DNC, by contrast, saw overwhelming favor being given to either current or former officeholders, and saved its most high profile nonwhite speakers for last, in the form of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and First Lady Michelle Obama. Indeed, prior to Castro and Obama, the only nonwhite speakers were the President and First Lady's siblings, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and actor Kal Penn. Every other speaker was lily white.

However, in spite of this apparent lack of diversity, the Democrats focused their attention on putting up speakers who talked up issues that they saw as relevant to particular minority groups, whether it was Ted Strickland's borderline xenophobic, union-style rant against Romney's offshore holdings, or Lily Ledbetter's Southern-tinged outrage at gender discrimination, or actor Kal Penn's wink and a nod appeal to young voters.

This pattern continued the second night of the convention, when Republicans once more placed their minority speakers in high value slots, foregrounding New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before Rep. Paul Ryan take the stage. Democrats, on the other hand, kept up their onslaught of having non-diverse speakers talk up diversity issues, with Elizabeth Warren, Sandra Fluke, and the inimitable Bill Clinton getting the prime rhetorical real estate. There was one notably diverse speaker on the second night of the DNC in talk show host Cristina Saralegui, but her entire speech gave the impression of having been tailored to appeal to the Latino vote exclusively.

The final night of both conventions completed the pattern, with Romney foregrounding two women (Kerry Healey and Jane Edmonds) and one Latino speaker (Marco Rubio) before taking the stage himself. Democrats, meanwhile, concluded their convention pretty much exclusively with talks from their two candidates.

In other words, the prime time convention schedules show not only that the two parties had different priorities, but that their speakers appear to have been selected to compliment their message. In the Republicans' case, they decided to sell their "rising tide lifts all boats" message to women and minorities by letting actual women and minorities make the case for it. By contrast, the Democrats appealed to these groups directly by talking up wedge issues that are likely to attract their votes, albeit with a less diverse speaker lineup. This is, again, less a copy of the GOP's approach than a direct rebuttal to it by pointing out that it's not enough to look like someone to get their vote - you have to talk the talk, too.

So were the Democrats on the defensive? Almost certainly, and they framed their entire convention as a rebuttal precisely because of that issue, whether by including speakers of a type the GOP ignored, or by tailoring their negative message to directly rebut the GOP's positive message, or by scheduling speakers to appeal to particular swing demographics via policy, rather than via common origins. And the contrast could not be clearer - Republicans want voters to think they will look out for them as Americans. Democrats want voters to think they will look out for them as individual groups.

One last thing…
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