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Political Conventions – What are They Good for?

The first of this season’s political conventions is officially underway in Tampa, Fla., where Republicans are preparing for Tropical Storm Issac and a reintroduction of Mitt Romney to Americans. Next week, Democrats will be in Charlotte, N.C., touting another term for President Barack Obama.

With convention news dominating headlines for the next two weeks, we asked Lehigh University faculty members to weigh in on the importance of conventions and what opportunities they provide. Here are their replies: 

This year’s GOP Convention lineup is sure to include the ‘also-rans’ that you thought you said goodbye to, like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, said associate professor of political science Brian Pinaire in a recent opinion article published in The Huffington Post.

“Sure, candidates may cease to be viable options for a variety of reasons -- because they are out of money, because they have skeletons in the closet, or because they are just kind of dumb -- but that does not necessarily mean they are ‘out,’ even if they have no chance of ever winning. Never forget that the lust for power and the radiance of the spotlight are the mainstays in this game. Ambition is to politicians what narcissism is to the cast of Jersey Shore,” Pinaire wrote. Read the full article here: GOP Conventioneering.

In regards to the conventions’ popularity, Pinaire said, “The 2008 conventions may have been watched by the most since 1960, but all that means is that they were the most watched since 1960 – big deal. They were, for the most part, scripted wastes of time since the 1980s and surely into 2004.

“The 1960 election was a first-of-its-kind, with JFK as the first Catholic nominee with a plausible chance of winning, and 2008 had the same effect for obvious reasons. You can't be a snooze-fest for four decades and then have one 'up' cycle and claim that that is the way we are cutting now, especially when you go on to concede that energy and enthusiasm are lower this year, negating the purported momentum you claimed to be flowing from the last cycle." Follow Pinaire on Twitter at @impoliticker.

Occupy opportunities
"We all know the political conventions are political theatre and almost entirely devoid of real substance, so the question is: Can the Occupy Movement do what it did before – force an issue into America's consciousness?” asked political science professor Ted Morgan, author of "What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Failed American Democracy.”

“Earlier, Occupy got its message of inequality onto the nation's political agenda. All that could happen at the conventions is that Occupy might get its message across that the two-party political system is failing to address the real needs of Americans. That, however, is a tricky proposition, requiring careful and creative planning."

Controlling ‘crazies’
"In a word, this is all about the Republican Party's ability to control its 'crazies,’” said Saladin Ambar, assistant professor of political science. “The balance Romney has attempted to strike thus far, is one raving-lunatic fringe speech away from doing him serious damage with Independents, who will ultimately decide the election." Follow Ambar on Twitter at @dinambar.

Social media firsts (and #mischief)
"This is really the first social media presidential election,” said Jeremy Littau, assistant professor of journalism and communication. “Twitter had a fraction of the total users in 2008 that it does now, but a big change is that politicians and party leaders at both the national level and grassroots have invaded Twitter in heavy numbers since they saw Barack Obama use social media successfully in 2008.

“There is much more potential for getting your message directly to the people, but there also is opportunity for mischief. It will make it interesting to see how much the parties try to control what is being tweeted from the floor, because to a certain degree they can't without some coercion. It also opens up the possibility of a true convention backchannel, which is a phenomenon we see at other types of conventions. The audience has a voice and can turn on speakers quickly. I wonder how Bill Clinton's 1988 speech, which was widely panned for being overly long, would have played on Twitter with a backchannel? So for political junkies, monitoring convention hashtags could be entertaining if a speaker isn't doing well." Follow Littau on Twitter at @JeremyLittau.

ObamaCare debate
"I am curious to see how much play ObamaCare gets on the Democratic side,” said finance and law professor Matthew Melone, an expert in federal income taxation and corporate governance. “I believe the Republicans will give significant attention to this issue at their convention -- basically calling for a repeal.

“The Democrats have been running away from this issue and I am eager to see if they stand up and defend it at their convention. They can't use the Supreme Court as their whipping post now, and that leaves them with the task of defending their legislation on the merits."

Selling leadership
"In the world of both CEOs and presidential candidates, a consistency of message and actions or perceptions is critical to gaining support of employees or citizens,” said Timothy Quigley, assistant professor of management and expert in CEO evolution and succession. “In short, the candidate has a tougher time than a CEO because of the opposition and often long records of taking (sometimes different) positions on important issues.

“Candidates must communicate a simple vision that is easy to grasp, that clearly describes some of some future state of affairs and lays out a logical path for getting there. Like CEOs, they need to establish foundational set of beliefs, consistent communication and reinforcement of those ideas, and personal behavior that is also consistent with the message communicated." Follow Quigley on Twitter at @tim_quigley.

Story by Sally Gilotti

Posted on Monday, August 27, 2012

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