Could the Convention Hurt Obama?
In the modern age, America's major-party conventions are love fests, feting their preselected nominees. But that may not be the case this year for Barack Obama, which means the Democratic Convention even has the potential to derail his chances for victory in November.
The press has been slow to notice the potential trouble ahead, but the Obama camp has not. In the past week, the media has rather dutifully reported that the key final night of the Democratic convention (Thursday, August 28) -- the night Obama will give his all-important acceptance speech -- will be moved out of the convention hall and into a stadium.
The story being spun is that the Obama team wanted to share its Thursday-night magic moment with the masses, and take a page from the playbook of John F. Kennedy, who pulled a similar move when he accepted his nomination in 1960 in an outdoor venue. In truth, the Kennedy homage likely had little to do with the decision.
Before the change, Obama was scheduled to give his speech in a hall half full of hardcore Hillary Clinton supporters who don't particularly like him. So odds are that Obama was looking for a larger venue in which Clinton's supporters would be only a small portion of the crowd. If things had gone ahead as scheduled, Obama might well have given a stirring address, only to have it met with indifference on the floor -- and that would be too big a story for the media to downplay.
Already, even under the best of circumstances, the first three days of the Democratic National Convention aren't going to give Obama the boost he'd like. He undoubtedly has to give Clinton a chance to deliver a prime-time speech and, no matter how nice she is to Obama, she (and not he) will be the focus of that evening's broadcast. Bill Clinton, as is the custom for a former president -- especially a popular one -- will have to be given a choice speaking assignment, as well.
On top of that, Obama will likely have to share the stage -- and further reduce his leading-man stature -- by carving out time to honor the ailing Ted Kennedy (if not a speech by the Massachusetts senator, then some sort of program to celebrate him). Sure, all these speakers will praise Obama to the hilt, but his candidacy will still be playing a supporting role at his own convention.
This is the problem faced by other modern-era nominees who've only narrowly secured their party's nod. Gerald Ford gave a barnburner of an acceptance speech in 1976, but was still upstaged by primary opponent Ronald Reagan's address a few moments later. In 1980, Jimmy Carter's acceptance speech was overshadowed by Ted Kennedy's address two days earlier. Sure, Obama is a much better speaker than Carter or Ford. But even Cicero would have a hard time firing up a nation when the live audience in front of him has been on an emotional roller coaster for three days -- and when many of them support someone else.
So, without a doubt, that's why the acceptance-speech venue was changed. But moving it into a stadium creates a new set of problems for the Obama campaign.
First, it's much harder to choreograph a speech in a stadium. Acoustics are more difficult to control, as are the spectators. Equally important, a nominee needs to bear in mind that his real audience is not the people sitting before him (who are, in essence, only extras in the production), but the millions watching on TV. That will be much harder for Obama to remember in front of a huge crowd, where the dynamics will pull him in the opposite direction.
Second, a large campaign rally in a ballpark full of adoring supporters may not actually be the best way to re-introduce Obama to the nation. Sure, those "Yes we can" events of the primaries conveyed a lot of enthusiasm. But it was always an open question whether they preached more to the choir than to the masses. Having 75,000 supporters screaming their heads off with Obama bellowing back could well scare off a more traditional and independent general electorate.
As Marshall McLuhan never failed to remind us, television is still a cool medium. Obama's model may be Martin Luther King Jr., and their rhetorical styles are vaguely similar. But remember that King's moving "I Have a Dream" speech (Obama's acceptance speech falls on the 45th anniversary of King's timeless moment, as he'll undoubtedly remind us) was delivered in the early days of TV, when rhetorical styles were different. It would not translate to the small screen nearly as well today, especially as a political event.
Remember, too, that, unlike other years when weeks separated the two big shows, the GOP convention will commence a mere four days after the Democratic convention wraps up, forming one long political mini-series. The assumption all along has been that the superior speaker and media phenom would produce the best convention, and thus an electoral advantage. But McCain has a more united party, the better to package his message. And, by going second, he can respond quickly to what happened the week before. These circumstances pose such a daunting challenge for Obama that, if he can go into the fall campaign simply not having lost ground during the conventions, he should consider himself lucky.