Conventions Draw Crowds but Sway Few Voters
By Adam Nagourney, NY Times, September 7, 2012
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The goal of the Democratic convention was to draw a sharp contrast between the visions offered by President Obama and Mitt Romney, promote a first-term record that many Democrats feel Mr. Obama has failed to articulate and persuade nervous Americans to stick with this president through tough times.
For Republicans, the goal of their convention was to flesh out a candidate who had been caricatured as bloodless, portray Mr. Obama as out of his depth and make voters who supported Mr. Obama in 2008 comfortable with leaving him in November for a lesser-known opponent.
As Democrats left here on Friday, the emerging consensus was that Mr. Obama had gone further in meeting the goals.
But even as the grading begins, the overriding question might be how much these conventions mattered. There is growing evidence that this year more than ever, the political significance of these extravagant and costly events was on the decline, just another in an ever-growing vortex of forces that help shape the election.
“There was a day where these conventions were covered much more intensively, there was less to watch on TV and voters were more open,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “But now, by the time the conventions took place, 90 percent of voters are locked in.”
Mr. Axelrod said the conventions had become “much more marginal than they once were” and were now much less about reaching undecided voters, since so few watch, and more of a pep rally to motivate the base. That is no small thing, he said, but certainly far short of the significance that conventions once held.
When measured by viewership and the number of prime-time hours that the networks devote to them, the conventions have been on the wane since the days when there were actually contested battles on the floor for the nomination. But changes in campaigns over the past four years have hastened their slide.
Voters in swing states have already been inundated with months of commercials from the Obama campaign, which decided to start advertising early, and from independent committees supporting Mr. Romney, not to mention 24-hour cable news coverage, delivered with a partisan tone by some networks.
After all that, there is little in the conventions, which themselves resemble elongated advertisements, to draw viewers’ interest or provide them with information that could sway their opinions.
“I think they have absolutely no impact on election results whatsoever,” said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington. “And people are catching on these conventions don’t matter. They are just daylong infomercials. People are beginning to realize that.”
Chris Lehane, who helped oversee the 2000 Democratic convention for Al Gore, said candidates had not experienced any real lift in polls from these gatherings at least since 2004.
“The conventions are watched by far less people, and the press covers them in a far more critical and skeptical fashion,” Mr. Lehane said. “They are akin to a political appendix. They exist but do not serve the purpose they were originally created to serve, which was to truly nominate the ticket.”
This is not to say that conventions have become complete relics. More than 35 million people watched Mr. Obama’s speech, and 30 million watched Mr. Romney, according to Nielsen ratings; all three networks showed the speeches. That is one of the largest audiences that the two men will get during this campaign, and Mr. Axelrod said he presumed that at least some of the viewers had not made up their minds.