Thursday, July 28, 2016

Against odds, the stem-winder survives -- July 28, 2016 column


One thing hasn’t changed since Democrats first nominated a Clinton for president in 1992.

A national political convention is still “the ideal forum -- perhaps the only forum left – for what has proved to be a remarkably enduring form of American folk art: the political oration.” So wrote The New Yorker nearly a quarter century ago.

“In an age of sound-bites and manufactured images, it turns out, we still appreciate the real thing, the stem-winder. We’re a people that likes to orate, and to be orated at,” an unsigned “Talk of the Town” column in the magazine’s July 27, 1992 issue said.

Some of the best political speakers of the era had just spoken at Madison Square Garden, where presidential nominee Bill Clinton shared his very personal story of growing up fatherless with his hard-working mother and devoted grandparents.

“I still believe in a place called Hope,” Clinton said, extolling the simple values of his hometown.

Surprisingly, in the age of Instagram and 140-character tweets, nearly 26 million people tuned into the 2016 Democratic convention’s first night, when first lady Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders spoke, according to the Nielsen TV ratings.

That was about 3 million more viewers than watched the Republican convention’s first night, with Melania Trump. When the final numbers are in, this year’s conventions likely will have drawn more viewers than in 2012 or 2008.

Why do people still care about this ancient form of political communication?

My guess is that everybody loves a good story, and, this year especially voters are hungry for emotional connection.

Since Ronald Reagan painted rhetorical pictures of morning in America, most politicians have used political convention speeches to inspire. There’s an art to giving a speech that tugs at heartstrings and shows personal values without being cloying. There’s also an art to turning complex issues into understandable take-aways. 

People don’t want the pros and cons of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; they want When Bill Met Hillary.

Bill Clinton did not disappoint in his speech Tuesday night. Clinton made his wife’s career in politics and government sound like a love story in a movie. Fighting the knock that Hillary Clinton is a status-quo candidate, the former president said: “She’s the best darn change-maker I ever met in my life.”

One of the main stories out of the Republican convention in Cleveland was Melania Trump’s speech. Unfortunately, the news was about echoes of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech. Trump had lifted several phrases of seemingly personal stories about family and parental values.

While most leading Republicans stayed away from Donald Trump’s convention, the presidential candidate used his acceptance speech to paint a dark picture of the state of America – and to bash Clinton.

In Philadelphia, Democrats offered a brighter view of America, waving “Love trumps hate” signs and often talking about love -- when they weren’t blasting Trump.

“We are all neighbors and we must love neighbors as ourselves,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Clinton’s new running mate, said, before mocking Trump.

Vice President Joe Biden unified the raucous crowd by emphasizing the importance of the middle class, a group Biden said Trump neither understands nor empathizes with. Trump has “no clue” how to make America great, Biden said.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a rising Democratic star, said: “Patriotism is love of country, but you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and countrywomen . . . We are not called to be a nation of tolerance. We are called to be a nation of love.”

Michelle Obama stirred emotions with personal reflections about her family: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent, black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

“I am more optimistic about the future of America than ever before,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday night. “There has never been a man or a woman – not me, not Bill – more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president,” he said.

Will all the oratory matter? We’ll know in November.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

'Lock her up!' unites GOP -- July 21, 2016 column


Alice Roosevelt Longworth would have loved this week’s Republican National Convention.

Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter had a throw pillow in her sitting room embroidered with the line: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Republicans in Cleveland richly rewarded viewers who wanted to hear nothing good about Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t just the wrong choice for president; she’s a criminal, they charged.

“Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” delegates at Quicken Loans Arena shouted, leaping to their feet and shaking their fists. And when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, indicted Clinton’s performance and character in his speech Tuesday night, the crowd bellowed “Guilty!” after each new charge.

Republicans will see how it feels starting Monday, when the Democratic National Convention opens in Philadelphia and attempts to turn Republican Donald J. Trump’s into Public Enemy No. 1.

Character assassination has a long, colorful history in presidential politics. A newspaper editor who supported Thomas Jefferson in the bitter election of 1800 wrote of John Adams that he had “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” 

But the sustained attacks on Clinton were a new level of mudslinging.
“She lied about her emails, she lied about her server, she lied about Benghazi, she lied about sniper fire – why she even lied about why her parents named her Hillary,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared.

The name claim stems from 1995 when the then-first lady said her mother always told her she was named for Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Mount Everest. But Clinton was born in 1947; Sir Edmund made the climb in 1953. Her presidential campaign conceded in 2006 it was just a “sweet family story.”
The GOP convention also showed rare disunity among the party faithful. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former presidential contender, refused to attend, as did other Republican leaders. Some conservative delegates erupted in anger after party leaders stifled a rules change that would have permitted delegates to vote for candidates other than Trump.

On the convention’s first day, the chairman of the Virginia delegation and former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Ted Cruz supporter, threw his credentials on the floor and marched out.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who boarded the Trump train late, sounded plaintive as he tried to unify Republicans. Only with Trump and his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence “do we have a chance for a better way,” he said. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

“Let the other party go on and on with its constant dividing up of people, always playing one group against the other, as if group identity were everything,” said Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012. “In America, aren’t we all supposed to be and see beyond class, see beyond ethnicity and all those other lines drawn to set us apart and lock us into groups?”

Cruz infuriated some delegates when he used his time at the podium Wednesday night not to endorse Trump but to give what sounded like his first presidential campaign speech of 2020. Delegates booed Cruz and shouted, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as the presidential nominee walked in.

The most peculiar knock on Clinton came from former GOP presidential contender Dr. Ben Carson, who said one of Clinton’s heroes in college and the subject of her senior thesis was radical organizer Saul Alinsky. In the forward to one of his later books, Alinsky acknowledged Lucifer as the first radical organizer.

“So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer?” Carson said. “Think about that.”

Clinton, perhaps previewing her attacks next week, insisted that Trump has nothing to offer the American people so he had to attack her. Trump’s “business model is basically fraud and abuse,” she said. “He talks about America First but his own products are made in a lot of countries that aren’t named America.”

At their convention, Republicans found one thing on which to agree: Hillary Clinton is their enemy. Democrats also agree on something: Trump is theirs.

Even before he endorsed Clinton, rival Bernie Sanders said he would work to defeat Trump. And when he finally did endorse her, Sanders said he wanted to make one thing clear: “I intend to do everything I can to make certain she is the next president.”

© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Rollercoaster polls take voters for a ride -- July 14, 2016 column


A headline in Politico this week read: “Swing-state stunner: Trump has edge in key states.” The only thing missing was an exclamation point.

Commentators online and on TV chewed over the news that three Quinnipiac University polls found Donald J. Trump slightly leading Hillary Clinton in the battleground states of Florida and Pennsylvania. The two candidates were tied in Ohio.  

The next day, a headline across a full page of The Wall Street Journal read: “Polls: Clinton, Trump Close in Key States.” Clinton and Trump were in a statistical tie in Ohio; she had a 3-point lead in Iowa and was ahead by 9 points in Pennsylvania, the latest Journal/NBC News/Marist polls found. 

And The New York Times reported the same day that Clinton and Trump were tied nationally, each with 40 percent of registered voters, in the latest Times-CBS News poll. 
But a different national poll a few days earlier had showed Clinton with a double-digit lead over Trump. Yet another put Trump ahead by single digits.

A reader could get a headache trying to parse the polls. But do polls matter? Not really. Not in July.

Everyone needs to remember that polls are a snapshot in time. If there’s anything we know about this presidential campaign, it’s unpredictable. 

Yes, Democrats would rather see Clinton on a positive trajectory, leaving Trump in the dust. And Republicans would like to see Trump steadily gaining ground on Clinton, although so far, while she seems to be sliding, he’s not rising.

But neither camp should get too exercised about polls this far out. They rarely predict Election Day.

Better to sit back, take a deep breath and ponder how Britain can change prime ministers in days while our presidential elections drag on for years. Here’s a poll tidbit that rings true: Six in 10 Americans are worn out by the presidential campaign.

Part of what’s driving the poll frenzy is news organizations’ trying not to miss the Trump story – again. Many political reporters -- I include myself -- thought Trump was a flash in the pan. Obviously, we were wrong.

But whether Trump or Clinton wins in November, some pollsters will be able to say they saw the incipient victory during the summer.

That’s fine, but voters need to know that analysts can’t even agree on polling methods.

Some analysts fault Quinnipiac, contending its sample size favors Trump by including larger percentages of white people and fewer minorities than voted in various states in 2012. Since minority voting is rising and white participation falling, Quinnipiac’s polls are biased, these critics say. We won’t know who’s right for nearly four months.

Naturally, Trump brags about his positive poll numbers and discounts those he doesn’t like. The Clinton campaign tweets that it always expected battleground states to be tight, and supporters just have to work harder.

When it comes to polls, though, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

After the Republican National Convention concludes July 21 and the Democratic convention wraps July 28, we’ll be bombarded by polls. The conventions traditionally bring the largest swings in polls during the campaign, say political scientists Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien. They studied polls from 1952 to 2008 for their 2012 book “The Timeline of Presidential Elections.” Traditionally, first, one party’s candidate gets a bounce and then the other.

In simpler times, most voters were just learning about presidential candidates by watching convention coverage on TV, and the conventions were spaced weeks apart. 

The exposure traditionally gave the nominees an average 5-point increase in the polls, Gallup reports, but the convention bounce has declined since 1996.

In 2012, a year like this one with back-to-back conventions, Republican Mitt Romney saw a 1-point dip after the GOP convention, and President Barack Obama got a 3-point bounce after the Democratic convention. Polls tightened by Election Day, as they usually do.

As always, the people who cast ballots Nov. 8 are the only poll that matters. And there’s something else to consider: One in 10 voters for both Clinton and Trump say they could still change their minds before Election Day.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Here come the conventions -- again -- July 7, 2016 column


In a year of voter anger and disgust, we’re about to see the coronations of two presidential candidates most Americans don’t like in a spectacle of speeches paid for by fat cats and lobbyists.

National political conventions we will have – Republicans July 18 to 21 in Cleveland and Democrats July 25 to 28 in Philadelphia – but why?

Because that’s the way we’ve always done it, since the 1830s anyway. Conventions are a relic of the 19th century, like getting ice from a horse-drawn wagon.

Not even shiny new convention apps or 360-degree cameras can save the conventions from their retro feel. Their original purpose was to select each party’s presidential nominee and platform, but they’ve evolved into four days of infomercials.

A few months ago, there was talk of a brokered or contested convention, which would make the occasion both newsworthy and significant. Then Donald Trump shocked the world by nailing the GOP nomination before Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic one. Anti-Trump forces still hope to derail his train by changing convention rules, but don’t count on it.

And most people – especially the nominees -- don’t care about party platforms. Sorry, Bernie.

The vice presidential candidates likely will be announced before the conventions, so there goes another shred of news. You could go on vacation off the grid for a couple of weeks and miss nothing, politically.

To be fair, some political scientists argue that having national political conventions every four years is good for our democracy. Conventions give the parties the opportunity, unfiltered by the news media, to reintroduce themselves and their values to voters, they say.

But convention viewership on television has been sliding since 1960. An exception came in 2008 when nearly two-thirds of all U.S. households – a record -- watched at least one convention, an analysis by the Nielsen TV ratings firm found. The numbers dropped in 2012. 

Drawing the most convention viewers does not translate into more votes for the party in November, however. Studies show most voters watch only the convention of the party they already favor.

“It’s safe to say that ratings have little to no electoral meaning,” University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball blog said in an analysis of the numbers.

This summer’s conventions may draw the curious. What will Trump’s family say? What will Bernie Sanders’ supporters do? And if, heaven forbid, the protests outside turn violent, people will watch.

Trump’s wife Melania, daughter Ivanka and sons Eric and Donald Junior will speak in prime time, along with famous sports and entertainment figures. No one ever knows what Trump himself will say.

President Obama previewed his role at the Democratic convention Tuesday in his first joint appearance with Clinton. He still has the power to energize the Democratic faithful in ways Hillary Clinton can only dream of.

Speaking at a national convention can be a career boost, as Obama demonstrated in 2004, so expect a parade of Democrats hoping to make a connection.

Many Republicans, though, are avoiding Trump’s party. Among those staying home: both Presidents Bush, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and 2008 nominee John McCain. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will not attend, nor will boxer Mike Tyson. Trump tweeted that Tyson wasn’t asked to speak.

Beginning in 1976, taxpayers paid for the national political conventions. The post-Watergate idea was to avoid corruption by using public funds from the tax return checkoff for presidential campaigns. In 2012, the Democratic and Republican parties each received about $18.2 million for their conventions. Not this year.

Congress turned off the spigot in 2014 – except for $100 million in security grants to law enforcement agencies in the two host cities. The security money has been allocated separately since 9/11.

So, this year, lobbyists, labor unions and corporations that have supported conventions in the past are bearing more costs and having even more influence. This is progress?
Anachronistic though they are, conventions live on. So, enjoy the spectacle of balloons and funny hats, but don’t take the speeches too seriously.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.