This year’s Republican National Convention kicked off with a bizarre day. Party delegates openly fought over the convention’s rules, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered a belligerent anti-crime broadside under the banner “Make America Safe Again”, and Donald Trump’s wife Melania addressed the convention only to be accused of plagiarising a speech by Michelle Obama.
But then again, conventions have always been strange beasts, especially when viewed from abroad. Voters in many democracies are used to at least annual party conferences that combine various functions from policymaking to PR, from internal elections to training grounds for candidates and party workers.
In the US, however, the conventions come along once every four years and they are really only about one thing: nominating a presidential candidate.
Of course, by the time a convention comes along, the candidate has usually already won. It’s now very rare for the decision to be brokered at one of these events, and although there is often speculation about this, there is also pressure on those involved not to leave things to the convention floor. So the event acts as a shop window, both for the candidate and the other figures clustered around them.
The choice, for example, of who else will speak is often a good pointer to who is viewed as a rising star, or who has managed to negotiate that appearance. And supporting speakers are often chosen to highlight particular themes. So we can learn both from the contents and delivery of the speeches as well as from who is up there on stage.
While the political establishment in each party may well know a lot about a vice-presidential nominee, the vast majority of voters will not. This matters because a running mate is often chosen to “balance” the ticket and broaden its appeal, whether on ideology, age, gender, or religion.
Trump’s choice, Mike Pence, will need to establish himself as a known quantity with all those citizens outside his home state of Indiana, and the convention is his first and best chance. This means giving his audience a sense of himself as a person as well as a politician.
Sarah Palin, John McCain’s ill-fated 2008 running mate, is a good parallel here.
Lipstick on a pitbull
The McCain campaign surprised almost everyone when it unveiled Palin the day after Obama accepted his nomination. Alaska carries as little weight as any other state in presidential elections and is far removed from most Americans' lives, so Palin had no national profile to speak of.
Even in the few days between the announcement and her speech, various unflattering stories emerged that threatened to make her toxic before she’d even been formally nominated. But when she spoke only days later, she silenced her critics (albeit briefly) with a remarkably assured and powerful performance for such a newcomer.
Watching it again, its power is still striking. Confident and assured beyond her experience, Palin spent an inordinate amount of time talking about her family, with the camera focusing in on her children, husband and parents – a powerful tactic to quickly make herself seem familiar and sympathetic, a humble Alaska “hockey mom” with a son fighting in Iraq.
But the speech is best known for one of those memorable soundbites that find a permanent place in the political lexicon. There is but one difference, said Palin, between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick. In one short phrase, she encapsulated a highly effective brand: a tough, protective mother just like millions all over the US, one who just happened to be a competent and effective governor.
Clearly Mike Pence can’t claim the cachet of a hockey mom. But when he speaks on July 20, he will need to find his own way to become relatable, as well as to convey some of those qualities which Trump’s campaign will want to highlight. Besides his religious and social conservative credentials – things for which Trump is hardly noted – his strong suit will be competence and executive experience.
While Trump has had trouble attracting party heavyweights to Cleveland, many of the other speakers at conventions are rising stars being offered one of their earliest national platforms. Some have gone on to run for president and to win; there are few better examples than Barack Obama, whose remarkable 2004 speech launched him as a national figure.
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was a rising star when he was chosen to nominate Michael Dukakis in 1988, but the speech he gave is remembered mostly for the audience’s audible relief when he uttered the words “in closing”.
Ultimately, conventions are chances for the campaigns and their principals to test whether their brand will work in the autumn campaign – massive market research exercises where themes, phrases, and people are road-tested and focus-grouped for the intense autumn sprint.
In this most unpredictable of election years, it’ll be fascinating to see what survives the jamborees in Cleveland and Philadelphia and makes it through to election night in November.