Party conventions still the make-or-break campaign event

Despite colossal changes in the media environment, the upcoming national political conventions still set the tone for the decisive heat of the 2012 presidential election.

Despite colossal changes in the media environment, the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions will still set the tone for the decisive heat of the 2012 presidential election, say campaign veterans.

While little breaking news emanates from well-scripted modern conventions, the events continue to play a key role in the election process because they attract TV audiences in the millions. In short, they are still a once-in-a-campaign opportunity for presidential candidates, according to industry experts.

“The candidate has his last best opportunity to outline who you are, why you're running for president, and what's the plan to turn the country around,” explains Steve Schmidt, vice chair of public affairs for Edelman and a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. “There's not another chance to do that in a campaign, and all the ads in the world can't fix a blown convention.”

“The interest level is very high and the stakes are high,” adds Brendan Daly, EVP and national director of public affairs at Ogilvy Washington and a former communications director for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “There's a distinction between the two parties in terms of their economic platforms, who they're fighting for, and what they're trying to do. The conventions are a way to demonstrate the importance of that.”

The GOP convention will take place from August 27 to August 30 in Tampa, FL, and the Democratic convention is scheduled for September 3 to September 6 in Charlotte, NC.

Dan Bartlett, president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies US and a former communications director for President George W. Bush, explains that both parties must be aware of the tone they're setting at the events.

“If the convention is not seen as bringing the party not only together but also extending a hand to independents, and it goes the other way and shows that the party is fractured, it can be very harmful,” he says.

With that in mind, the Democrats and Republicans recently revealed convention speaker lineups with the goal of appealing to key voter groups as well as emphasizing important party messages. The GOP will feature Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, as well as several prominent women in the party, such as former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have lined up former President Bill Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro will be the keynote speaker.

Yet the defining moment of the convention remains the nominee's prime-time speech.

“The convention speech is pretty definitive on who they are as a candidate,” says Karen Hughes, global vice chair of Burson-Marsteller and a former top counselor to President George W. Bush. “It defines the candidate, their values, and philosophies. In this election, it's a contest about different political philosophies and policies, so that makes the speech even more important.”

The candidates' speeches, if they hit their mark, will also help the parties mobilize constituents for the November vote, notes Kiki McLean, global head of public affairs at Porter Novelli and former director of communications for the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

“The political conventions are cultural signals that call everyone out for a critical message. It's the message that is primarily around the nominee's speeches, but then it's also the message that is supported by who else is there,” she says.

The exponential growth in social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in the past four years will also challenge the Obama and Romney campaigns to keep their supporters on message. At both conventions, delegates will be tempted to speak to the public on social media without a filter, which could lead to regrettable comments the campaigns must distance themselves from.

“Citizen journalists are now empowered to become their own reporter because they can post pictures or comments, and obviously that has tripped up candidates in the last couple of cycles,” adds Bartlett.

While the nominating conventions are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for politicians to make a name for themselves – then-Sen. Barack Obama rose to stardom after his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention – they're also an opportunity for media outlets and other companies to debut products.

“Not only is this about candidates, future leaders, and politicians getting their names out there, but also cool technology that can be launched at these places,” says Heidi Nel, VP of marketing and public affairs at FitzGibbon Media.

Nel cites influential news outlet Politico and TV program Morning Joe as examples of media that entered the mainstream after nominating conventions. Even traditional media is extending into the digital space. Time magazine formed a partnership with Foursquare to release badges, tips, and lists for each convention, and both campaigns have unveiled mobile apps to drive donations online.

“Anybody who has a good digital strategist knows that they've got to build up the positive sentiment online about certain topics as much as possible to drown out any negative stuff that is inevitably going to come through,” says Nel.

But social media is only one part of the equation for traditional campaigning, Schmidt notes.

“All the social media tactics and all the digital tactics in a campaign are not an end to themselves,” he says. “They all exist for a singular purpose, which is to build an organization that is capable of reaching or exceeding voter turnout targets in all the swing states.”

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