The bounce that the Democrats got from their convention is impressive given how set in concrete the shape of this race has been for a very long time. Coming out of the ugliness of last summer’s debt ceiling fight, the Obama team developed a new populist strategy and message, allowing him to reconnect with his base and regain his footing with some independents. And coming out of the Republican primary fight, Romney consolidated the Republican base vote and anti-Obama independents. As a result, since the spring, the race has been set in stone- Obama and Romney have been within 3 points, a very close race with remarkably small numbers of undecided and almost no movement. Romney slipped to about 3 down toward the end of summer, then managed to pull back to 1 down or even with the selection of Ryan and the Republican convention, but those couple points movement were about the only motion we have seen. It has been a far more stable race than 2008, 2004, and 2000, where the numbers bounced around a fair amount and each candidate had moments where they had the momentum.
For Obama to now be about 6 points up is a pretty major development given that set of dynamics. Perhaps even more significant are some of the enthusiasm numbers I am now seeing, where Democrats have gotten more pumped about their party and Obama. It means that the convention messaging was powerful enough to break through with key voters, both swing and base. These numbers are especially interesting given that Obama’s and Biden’s closing night speeches broke no new ground, created no new excitement in and of themselves. They were solid speeches that did what they needed to do, but my view is that you can’t explain the surprising bump by the those speeches alone or even mainly.
I think that what worked in this convention was that the Democrats succeeded far more than in any convention I have seen except maybe in ’92 in building a narrative about who the Democrats are, who the Republicans are, and this moment in history. Let me take you on a video tour of how they did that.
I’ll start with a non-politician, because even Hollywood got into the middle class message, and did it just right:
In terms of the politicians, first I want to show MA Gov. Deval Patrick. In this clip of his speech, he was talking about a school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in inner city Boston:
For America to rise, they must rise. It is the quintessential “we’re all in this together” message, making the point that helping poor children is not only the right thing to do, but something that helps the economy and all of us.
Another great speech that built this frame was Julian Castro’s. Listen to him here:
That 1:29 paints a great story about opportunity, the middle class- about how everyone should be able to climb into it and stay in it, and about the threads that bind us. It is Democratic story telling at its best.
Now listen to Michelle Obama combine biography and a story about values- how for their families, it wasn’t about making lots of money, it was about building better lives and helping others. It was subtle, and yet not so subtle:
In the featured hour at primetime on night 2, the 3 main speakers told a similar story. First Sandra Fluke added stories about women’s health and values definitively to the narrative:
Next up, another heroic woman, Elizabeth Warren, talked about the fundamental economic issues middle class families had to face every single day. She did an amazing job of telling the story of Wall Street’s abuses and middle class families havig the system rigged against them. A good story needs a villain, and Warren did a better job than anyone at the convention of showing who the villain was and how Democrats believe we should take that villain on. She beautifully showed the difference between corporations and people:
Then came the master storyteller, the “secretary of explaining stuff” himself Bill Clinton. Nobody does it better than Clinton, and he went on longer than he was scheduled to, but that was okay. Here’s a part of his great speech, the section that I think did the most to reinforce the broader narrative of the week. It’s less than a fifth of the original speech, but still takes a while to watch:
On to the final night, where Biden and Obama broke no new ground but reinforced the narrative of the entire convention. Joe Biden’s speech was classic Joe. I worked for Joe in the short-lived 1988 Presidential, and heart-on-his-sleeve, ode to the classic American middle class was pure Joe Biden through and through. I especially loved his description of the “Bain way”, and why it wasn’t right for America:
Finally, I want to show Obama’s best 4 minutes, when he captured the essence of the American story Democrats were telling at the convention:
This convention was as well put together as any I have seen. It took a race that was set in stone and changed it into a race where the President has a significant lead. Does the bump hold? Probably not completely, but I would guess that we are probably looking at a fairly stable 3-4 point lead rather than a dead heat until the first debate, and with the dynamics of the race this static, that is a big accomplishment. What the Democrats succeeded at doing was telling a compelling story of their values and their beliefs. We unapologetically made the case for an American community where we look out for each other and help each other make it in the middle class and get rewarded for working hard and playing by the rules. Unlike most Democratic messaging over the last several decades, it all hung together as one story, and it was appealing to a solid majority of the American public.
We also did one other thing, which was to remind people why politics matters, why all this is important. Clinton did that with statistics; Fluke did that with her contrasting visions of two potential presidencies. And in keeping with that idea, here’s the final clip I’m going to show. I’m ending like I began, with a clip of a non-politician, whose story was the most compelling one of the week to me: