BEFORE primaries became the more common mechanism of selecting party nominees, the Republican National Convention served as the venue for delegates to wage their famous intra-party battles. Teddy Roosevelt stormed out in 1912 to form the Progressive Party, the moderate Dwight Eisenhower trumped the conservative Robert Taft in 1952, an ideological battle that Barry Goldwater reversed in 1964 by defeating Nelson Rockefeller.
In the modern day, the convention serves as nothing more than a taxpayer-subsidised opportunity for the party nominees to seek that all-important polling “bounce” after their keynote speech. But it’s also the only time the campaigns possess a near-monopoly on news coverage. With Republicans set to dominate the airwaves in the build up to their convention in Florida next week, the Democrats’ objective has always been to launch a barrage of negative stories – in the hope that one sticks and undermines Mitt Romney’s seamless coronation. Dealing with Democratic distractions before a convention is to be expected. Spending the last four costly days distancing yourself from a fellow Republican is not.
Republican congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin’s claim that victims of “legitimate rape” seldom fall pregnant not only imperils Republican hopes of taking back the Senate, but will plague the remainder of his party’s presidential endeavour. Democrats already see this as an opportunity to widen their advantage with women. Obama’s campaign will seek to portray the Republican convention as a circus of social conservatives run amok. Any Republican who has co-sponsored legislation, served, or merely has an “R” by their party affiliation, will quickly become familiar with attack advertisements citing the percentage of votes they have cast with the disgraced Akin. Romney’s running mate and Akin’s congressional colleague, Paul Ryan, will inevitably bear the brunt of this.
The Akin debacle continues to dominate the headlines, preventing Romney from focusing on the economy. But, all things considered, he still looks strong heading into the convention. Polls remain volatile, but Romney has moved marginally ahead in Wisconsin and Michigan – two states that Democrats did not want to divert resources to. These efforts will certainly be bolstered by Romney’s significant funding haul, after he outraised Obama by a massive margin for the third month in a row. The fact that the President has already outspent Romney two-to-one, and continues to haemorrhage cash, will do little to assuage Democratic concerns as they head into the campaign’s last two months.
Party conventions may no longer be the site of backroom deals to pick the nominee, but they do represent the one uninterrupted opportunity the candidate has, before a prime-time audience, to sell himself to the people at home. Preparation and presentation is everything; it’s one of the few election events many Americans feel compelled to watch.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt