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A Tale of Two Conventions

A Tale of Two Conventions

By Sean Trende - September 7, 2012


The political conventions are (finally) over, and with that the general election (finally, or at least officially) begins in earnest. In the next few days we'll be subjected to endless analyses of what went right, what went wrong, and what was a wash. Most of these will reflect highly subjective impressions of analysts who have virtually nothing in common with your average swing voter.

So let’s try something different. Instead, I think it is at least somewhat useful to look at the conventions and see what they tell us about what the campaigns think about the election. After all, they have reams of data on swing voters, and on the state of the race.

Let’s start with the Republicans. They had a very strange convention for a challenging party. For starters, the speakers largely avoided Mitt Romney, at least until the last night. Chris Christie drew heated criticism for his lack of celebration of the presumptive nominee. But it wasn’t just Christie. Marco Rubio’s speech mentioned Romney’s name twice; Susana Martinez mentioned him twice; Condoleezza Rice used his name five times. Combined, that’s fewer mentions of Romney than Ted Strickland uttered in his speech at the Democratic convention.

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.

This all may tell us two things about how Team Romney views the race. First, they don’t see a lot of value in bashing Obama anymore. Americans know him, and their minds are by and large made up. In the 939 polls Gallup has taken since January 1, 2010, the president has been below 48 percent approval 80 percent of the time. He’s also been above 43 percent approval 80 percent of the time.

This year in particular has seen even more stability; his approval has been below 48 percent 79 percent of the time and above 43 percent 93 percent of the time. That is remarkable. The only really surprising change over the past few months has been the decline in his favorable ratings; contrary to the prevailing narrative, they are only marginally better than Romney’s at this point.

The more interesting observation, though, is that the Romney camp seems to believe that the Republican brand is a greater danger to a Romney win than Romney himself. Remember, they vet those speeches. Christie didn’t sing a song of himself without the Romney team saying they thought it was a good idea.

The data here are a bit scattered, but the Republican Party is still held in lower esteem than the Democrats. The last CBS News poll, for example, found the GOP with a 35 percent favorable rating vs. a 53 percent unfavorable rating. For the Democrats it was better: 43 percent favorable, 47 percent unfavorable.

This is actually perfectly consistent with the edge in registration that Republicans are opening up. It suggests that this isn’t a “real” advantage, but rather is a function of Republican-leaning independents increasingly calling themselves Republicans, rather than any change in mindset.

This is why the Republicans invested so much time and effort trying to reintroduce their party. It’s a rebranding effort, and I suspect it was meant to pre-empt any attempts to tie Romney/Ryan to the unpopular Bush administration, as well as to inoculate the ticket against a generic “Do you really want to put the Republicans in charge?” argument. I don’t think it was particularly successful, but that is what I think is going on.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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