Those of us who cover politics recognize the national conventions are
carefully choreographed. But we also recognize that they are newsworthy and
can—and often do—have a significant effect on who becomes president. Let me
share two specific examples.
On July 16, 1992, Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee,
emerged from the convention at Madison Square Garden in New York with the
declaration, "I end tonight where it all began for me: I still believe in a
place called Hope." And with that appearance, Clinton gained a ton of
momentum—enough to propel him to the White House and defeat an incumbent
president named George H. W. Bush.
Clinton's 1992 convention, by almost all accounts, was the most
successful on record. Until those four days, he was running well behind Bush.
In fact, he was in third place—even behind Ross Perot.
The convention solidly turned things around. Clinton got a huge bounce
in the polls, and he never fell behind. That convention helped introduce the
former Arkansas governor to a large chunk of the American public that didn't
like Bush, but was not yet ready to commit to Clinton. Yes, everything was
scripted for Clinton, including his walk to the convention from Macy's and the
slick biographical film produced by his Hollywood friends. But that script
wound up having a huge political impact. It was newsworthy.
In Boston at this year's Democratic convention, John Kerry's team
clearly tried to do the same thing. Kerry, too, included a slick
Hollywood-produced film to tell his life story. Unlike Clinton, there was no
significant Kerry bounce in the national polls. But Bush hasn't pulled away
either. The race is essentially neck and neck.
Look at the 1988 presidential contest and the failed campaign of Michael
Dukakis. He emerged from his convention in Atlanta with a big bounce in the
polls, only to see it disappear in the subsequent weeks—after George H. W.
Bush's convention in New Orleans.
Bush moved into the lead after his convention and never lost it. He did
it by reminding voters that things were better under Ronald Reagan. Remember
his convention pledge: "Read my lips: No new taxes." Why, he asked, would
anyone want to change that?
The convention was a critical moment in his political strategy.
Ironically, that 1988 convention pledge, which he broke in office, came back to
haunt him in 1992.
So what this President Bush says at next week's GOP convention could be
critical in shaping his own political future and deciding Kerry's. We'll see.
In any case, it's history and well worth watching and covering.
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