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Monday, August 27, 2012


Many years ago, American political conventions actually chose each party’s presidential nominee. Conventions often started with doubt about the outcome, which depended on bargaining among delegates and party leaders. But candidates now win delegates by competing in primaries and caucuses, and the identity of the nominee is clear by the end of spring.

Conventions put a formal conclusion to the nomination process. Instead of forums for decision, they are big political rallies that enable each party to gain a few hours of television coverage. Yet they remain significant. The televised speeches and the media coverage may affect public opinion. Conventions usually help candidates, but sometimes they can hurt.

This week's Republican convention will be important to Mitt Romney. Although he ran for president four years ago, and resumed his quest for the presidency soon after President Obama’s inauguration, many Americans still know little about him. The convention speeches, and especially his own acceptance speech, will introduce him to millions. If he and his party make a good impression, then he will gain several points in the polls.

Conventions, however, can go badly. Thousands of delegates will attend, and reporters will be eager to catch them making intemperate remarks or engaging in unsavory behavior. That's especially true in the age of camera phones and Twitter. This year, the latter risk is great because Tampa is notorious for its strip clubs. Convention planners will try to keep the delegates busy with wholesome activities.

Acceptance speeches usually go well, but they can fail. Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 gave weak performances that made their supporters worry about their prospects. Romney needs to avoid that fate. 

The Democratic convention takes place next week, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The stakes are not as high for President Obama as they are for his challenger. After nearly four years in office, he does not have to introduce himself: most voters have decided whether they like him.

Nevertheless, his convention will still matter. The president has a reputation as an outstanding orator, which presents a challenge to him. Expectations will be extremely high, so a moderately good acceptance speech will come across as a disappointment.

In the end, the conventions might only shift a point in the popular vote. But the election is likely to be close, so that point could be crucial.