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Conventions Condensed: Highlights from the DNC and RNC

News & Features | October 1, 2012

Nominating conventions used to be just that—a forum for political parties to choose their presidential nominees. While delegates do still cast votes these days, the nominee’s identity is usually a foregone conclusion, making the convention less of an election and more of a coronation. The televised three-day events are filled with stirring speeches, the parties’ official platform approvals, the nominees’ post-crowning acceptance speeches, and, nowadays, an aging Republican actor reading a soliloquy to an empty chair. Both the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte hoped to secure supporters, sway those on the fence with promises of greener grass, and ultimately gain enough momentum to get ahead in the polls before the big presidential debates begin on October 3.

The Platforms

While both parties’ delegates approve an official platform at their respective conventions, its details are more often than not ignored in actual governing. The party platform acts as an outline of goals and principles for the party. Key issues for both parties in their national platforms this time include the economy, abortion, marriage equality, and health care. Both platforms are heavy on general visions for the future and light on the specifics, with carefully worded policies on controversial issues.

The GOP national platform, most often described as “tough,” takes a hard line on many key issues. The platform bans abortion in all cases and promotes education that declares abstinence as “the responsible and respected standard of behavior.” Mitt Romney’s personal stance, however, would allow abortion in instances of rape, incest, or endangerment to the mother’s health. The GOP platform also bans gay marriage, backing a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In terms of health care, the GOP platform states that a Republican president would halt the progress of the health care act beginning his first day in office, and would instead propose a system that promotes the free market by lowering costs and improving health care quality. As for unemployment, the platform says the best jobs program is the economic growth the GOP would achieve via tax cuts.

The Democratic national platform presents very different—if equally broad—goals for the future. The platform continues to support Roe v. Wade and funding for providers like Planned Parenthood, stating that, “abortion is an intensely personal decision… There is no place for politicians or government to get in the way.” The platform also gives its first formal support for same-sex marriage and the freedom of religious institutions in administering marriage as a “religious sacrament.” Along with praising the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in 2010 and seeks to lower healthcare costs and increase the number of insured Americans, the platform also promises to keep the health care reforms coming. Regarding taxes, the Democratic platform (surprisingly) agrees with the GOP about lowering the corporate tax rate, but also calls for extension of Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 per year.

The Speeches

Both the RNC and the DNC featured key players of the respective parties, as well as the occasional star. Clint Eastwood, a famously Republican actor, spoke at the RNC, as did House Speaker John Boehner, Senator John McCain, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ann Romney, and both Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Many of the speakers in Tampa who were meant to support Mitt Romney spent more time touting themselves or their states, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Those who did talk about Romney did so in personal terms, trying to show a softer side of the Republican candidate. Notably, Ann Romney’s account of her husband showed an otherwise hidden side of the Mitt Romney. Her appeal to women as having to work harder for less pay and less respect garnered much positive attention. However, the lackluster speeches of several governors left the RNC with no cohesive message or vision, and instead with the memory of Clint Eastwood talking to a chair.

The DNC, on the other hand, showed a Democratic party more cohesive than it has been in some months, presenting key themes on all three nights. Notable speakers included Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, Texas; Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey; First Lady Michelle Obama; and former President Bill Clinton. Michelle Obama set the tone for the convention with her emotionally charged speech and reminder that change takes time. On the second night, Bill Clinton made a rousing case for four more years and a country of “shared prosperity and shared responsibility—a we’re-all-in-this-together society.”

The Acceptances

Unfortunately, neither Obama nor Romney were the highlights of their respective conventions. One Politico.com subhead reads, “Obama was fine, Clinton was better.” The president left the convincing to Clinton, and instead chose to speak less of his past accomplishments and more of hope for the future.

Expectations for Romney’s speech were low to begin with,, but his unusually autobiographic speech showed Romney as a more open and gentle man than the public is accustomed to seeing. For the first time, Romney spoke at length about his business experience, but like Obama, Romney avoided the more controversial topics of this presidential race.

Overall, nominating conventions serve as a springboard into the busy autumn months before the November election. The conventions allow the parties to formally declare where they stand on the issues, as well as give the presidential candidates an opportunity to present themselves to their parties and to the public through a widely broadcasted medium. According to TV by the Numbers, 35.7 million people tuned in to watch the finale of the DNC. The RNC’s finale attracted a slightly smaller audience, but its 30.3 million viewers is still a formidable number. With the pageantry of the nominating conventions in the past, public and media attention turn to more serious and less confetti-filled aspects of the presidential race, beginning with the debates in October.