Academics don’t usually bring convention audiences to their feet. But in 1984, Jeane Kirkpatrick took the podium at the Reunion Arena in Dallas and gave a stem-winder. Then 61 and the author of scholarly treatises on dictatorships and presidential nominations, she was an unlikely orator. She was not only the ambassador to the United Nations but also a Democrat, and, as she duly noted to great applause, this was her first Republican convention.
Kirkpatrick then tore into her party, dubbing its members the “San Francisco Democrats”—that is, appeasing peaceniks. Their foreign policy was more like an “ostrich than a dove,” she said, declaring that Democrats buried their “heads in the sand.” The crowd loved it. Part of it was her delivery, but a lot of it had to do with her crossover appeal.
The implicit message is subtle and powerful: Your nominee’s a winner. Even people in the other party like him. The other party has gone off the rails, and anyone with common sense is going to switch sides.
Sure, organizations of crossover voters are common: Democrats for Willkie in 1940, for instance, or Republicans for Johnson in ’64. But there’s nothing like a speaker from the opposite party to bring it home.
That dynamic will be on display on Tuesday night when Artur Davis, the former Democratic House member from Alabama, takes the stage at the GOP convention. Back in 2008, he seconded Obama’s nomination, and he crossed paths with the president even earlier, at Harvard Law School. But Davis was not a fall-in-line Democrat. He bucked the president on the administration’s signature health care law, and his conversion to the Republican Party was surprising but not entirely shocking.
So Davis, who has indicated he won’t talk about race in his speech, is in a unique position to make the case for Romney and to reach out to Obama supporters whom the GOP has to win over this time if Romney is to win. Davis can make an intellectual argument; his race, even if he doesn’t bring it up, makes a tacit argument, too: Hey, I’m not with the other guy any more, and there’s nothing racist about that.
Charlie Crist, the former GOP governor of Florida, will try the same thing for the Democrats in Charlotte. Like Lieberman, he lost his party’s primary and still won office, but the experience ratified his centrist inclinations.
But even though crossover speakers have their convention appeal, it’s not clear that they can deliver votes. In 2008, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman backed John McCain at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. But during the fall campaign, Lieberman was only a modest and not especially powerful surrogate for McCain.
In 2004, Zell Miller might have taken it too far. The Democratic senator from Georgia was tapped to be keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in New York, where he ripped into his party’s candidate, Sen. John Kerry. “This is the man who wants to be the commander in chief of our U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?” The tirade was a hit in the hall, but Miller’s stern manner made Dick Cheney seem like a comedian. Miller was not a surrogate on a par with Kirkpatrick.
Other crossover speakers have simply been forgotten. A speech backing Obama by former Rep. Jim Leach, a Republican from Iowa, was far less memorable than, say, Colin Powell’s Meet the Press appearance in the fall of 2008, where he announced that after long deliberation he would back Obama. Sometimes a quiet statement is louder than a convention speech.