Friday, September 7, 2012

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of the Democratic National Convention, Do the Conventions Matter at All Anymore?

Last week, I looked at the best and worst of the Republican National Convention.  This week, I do the same for the Democrats, who, as expected, had a similarly hyper-produced package of material for consumption by us politicos and whatever undecided voters actually still watch this kind of stuff.

Here is my rundown:

The Good (and Very Good)
(1) Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton
Love him or hate him, Bubba is the master.  I have never in my lifetime seen a politician who can break down complex arguments in simple ways that are equally compelling to the political in-the-know and the casual observer.

Clinton's strident defense of Obamacare, including citing insurance rate declines, arrested health care inflation and stories of the ill protected was truly compelling and frankly made me wonder where the heck the Obama administration has been in the defense of its signature policy.

His dismantling of Romney and Ryan's economic proposals was wicked red meat and incredibly quotable, containing such memorable one-lines as "double down on trickle down" and "they say we need to have the courage to make the tough choices but don't have the courage to tell us what choices they would make."

He made the strongest possible case for Obama, stronger than anyone else at the convention.

(2) Joe Biden
We knew that Clinton would be good - he has always been a great speaker.  The whole Democratic Party might have been nervous about Biden, who is often prone to gaffes and wild overstatements of arguments that make him vulnerable to criticism.

Biden's speech was fiery, but also emotionally connecting and persuasive.  After all the fire he has brought over the past 4 years, it is easy to see after that speech why the President liked him so much in the first place - at his best, Biden comes across as genuine, decent and loyal.

"Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive" will likely live on as a campaign mantra.

(3) Brian Switzer
The cowboy Governor of Montana is a hidden star in the Democratic party.  His dissection of Governor Romney's term in office, while less comprehensive than the speech delivered by Deval Patrick two days earlier, was more compelling in my mind because it made several simple points clearly - Romney left the state in greater debt and his claim of not raising taxes is a shell game.

The line "when you want to raise taxes and not tell anyone it's a tax increase, you call it a fee" cracked me up, as did his follow-up line about being mad at Romney about raising the cost of gun licenses.

Switzer is this decade's answer to Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

The Bad
(1) President Obama's Speech
I frankly found this to be the worst major speech of the President's career.  His attempt at lofty inspiration and appeal to our better natures felt vacant and flat to me in the face of the bitter partisanship and tough circumstances in which the country finds itself and of which the President has been a part.

He fired away at Romney and Ryan for not offering any specifics (a claim that is utterly fair) but then followed that by offering no real agenda of his own, other than some vague policy goals with long timeframes.

What exactly would the President prioritize if re-elected?  I'm not at all sure after watching that speech and that's not a good thing.

(2) The Long Line of Celebrities
Does everyone from Hollywood have to be given 15 minutes at these things?  I will admit that Eva Longoria gave a smart, poignant speech (she knows her stuff in politics), but the rest of the celebrity speeches sort of felt like an insult to the audience and left me wondering, what exactly qualifies them to be here telling me how to vote?

The Ugly
(1) The platform fight
This might or might not have life as an issue, but what the Democrats did relative to their platform change was a disgraceful subversion of Democracy.

To set context for those who didn't follow it, for whatever reason (oversight or intention), the platform initially omitted language which had been included in the 2008 platform pertaining to the State of Israel being our strongest ally in the Middle East and Jerusalem being the capital of Israel.

As the media and the GOP caught the shift and outraged ensued, the Democrats scrambled to change the platform back to the 2008 language (which also aligned with the state policy of the Obama administration.)

No problem with doing that, other than that convention rules require a vote of 2/3rds of the delegates to amend the platform after it has been adopted (which it already had.)  When the amendment was proposed on the floor, Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaragosa took a voice vote three separate times.  Each time, it appeared that the vote from the floor was no better than 50/50 for the platform change and clearly NOT a 2/3rds vote (plenty of video is available on YouTube.)  Nonetheless, Villaragosa decided that 2/3rds had voted for the change and it was adopted.

Shame on Villaragosa and shame on the party leaders for allowing this.  You cannot be the party of Democracy if you don't even practice it in your own party.

Overall, my impression is that the conventions were a relative wash - Romney was stronger than Obama in the nomination speeches but Biden was better than Ryan and Clinton was miles better than any speaker on the GOP side.

All of which leads to the key question:

Does Any of This Matter?
When I laid out my 7 key events to the last 100 days of the election (the selection of Romney's VP, the two conventions and the four debates), my assumption was that each of these 7 events could at least have the potential to shift polls in a meaningful way.  It is clear to me that the Paul Ryan nomination helped Romney at least some, possibly facilitating as much as a 2 point swing in the polls, which is significant in a close race.

So are the conventions having a similar effect?  It is too early to have numbers from the DNC, but we can see if there is an effect from the RNC by looking at the two tracking polls that are consistently publishing every day, the Rasmussen and the Gallup polls.

Both polls have their flaws - Scott Rasmussen is clearly a Republican-leaning, if not Republican-affiliated pollster and his polls early and in the middle of races consistently show the GOP doing better than virtually all independent polls.  Somehow, as elections draw near, his polls tend to intersect other polls, so his final numbers always look respectable.  So, I read the Rasmussen polls but always take them with a grain of salt if there are not other, independent polls that verify his findings.

Gallup certainly does not have polling bias, it is probably the most respected and storied polling firm in history.  My gripe with Gallup is that at this stage in the race, they use a registered voter sample rather than a likely voter sample.  Their argument has always been that until late, it is too difficult to effectively screen who is actually likely to voter, as each election has different turnout patterns.  There is validity to that argument, by the by-product of simply ignoring the likeliness of people to actually show up, Gallup can, at times, over-represent the Democratic vote.  This was not the case in 2008, when Democratic turnout was huge, but was most definitely the case in 2004, when Democratic turnout lagged GOP turnout.

Of the 2 polls, I prefer the Gallup poll, which is much more stable with a larger sample size and a longer tracking period (7 days versus 3 days for Rasmussen.)  I also like the fact that they make their tracking results available to the public (you have to pay to get the history on the Rasmussen poll, although they publish their daily number once per day free of charge.)  I will present the Gallup poll but tell you that the Rasmussen poll has tracked in the same general direction, but has been about 2-3 points consistently more favorable to Mitt Romney, for the reasons described above.

Here are the tracking changes in the Gallup poll through the convention season:
The RNC is an absolute flatline - no change in the polling whatsoever.  It remains to be seen whether the uptick in the poll yesterday for Obama is an outlier or the start of a trend up as a result of the DNC.

At any rate, while Romney was successful in changing his trajectory to some extent with the selection of Paul Ryan, it appears he was not successful in getting a "bounce" out of the RNC.

We now have a few weeks to argue over all this until the next major event, the first Presidential debate, on October 3rd.

The ads will start flying fast and furious in the meantime as the Romney campaign just announced a huge ad buy in 8 key swing states.  The choice of the 8 states is highly instructive as to his strategy. The ad buys are in: North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, Florida and Nevada.  Notably missing are Michigan and Wisconsin, two states that I thought were at least marginally in play and represent big electoral prizes.  Also missing is Pennsylvania, a state every Republican candidate in my lifetime has tried to compete for but that the Republicans haven't won since 1988.

All 8 of the states are states Obama won in 2008.  Assuming Romney wins all the McCain states (a reasonable assumption as of all those states, only Missouri and Arizona are even marginally competitive and both appear likely to go to Romney in the end) and picks up Indiana with relatively little effort (also a fairly safe assumption, given recent polling), these 8 states would put Romney at 291 Electoral Votes, 21 more than he needs to win.

It still shows the tough electoral map for Romney.  He could run the table everywhere but Florida and he would still lose.  The reason he is competing in a 4 electoral vote state in New Hampshire is that if he losses Ohio, he needs all of the other 7, including New Hampshire to win (in actuality losing Ohio and New Hampshire and winning the other 6 creates an almost unthinkable 269-269 tie that would probably wind up with the House of Representative selecting Romney, but let's not even go there right now.)  He can lose a few of the smaller states if he takes the big prizes of Ohio and Florida.  He could lose Iowa, Nevada and Colorado in that scenario and still eek out a 270-268 victory.

Expect the President to push very hard in Ohio and Florida to try to score the knockout punch.  He has also shown a lot of energy for going after North Carolina, which would considerably complicate Romney's path.

The battlegrounds are fairly clear.  Get ready for the ad carpet bombs from the campaigns and the Super PACs.

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