Candidates Don't Always Get Winning Narratives Out of Conventions

Alex Roarty

Every four years at their conventions, presidential candidates get a few days to present their lives and aspirations exactly the way they want their stories to be told. Friends, relatives, and allies deliver testimonials to their character and policy brilliance. There’s often a stirring, well-produced movie. And of course, there’s The Speech. So they should always get a boost, right?

Well, not exactly. Conventions have featured plenty of good moments for White House hopefuls — some that have even helped make them the next president. But some have failed badly (think Democrats in 1972, a convention and campaign so chaotic that Sen. George McGovern delivered his acceptance speech at 2 a.m., and two weeks later dumped his duly nominated running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who had failed to mention two instances of electroshock therapy for depression).

Even memorable positive moments don’t necessarily translate into success. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan delivered his renowned “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic convention in Chicago, a populism-laced riff that launched him to national political stardom and the presidential nomination. He didn’t even manage to win 40 percent of the vote that year.

The last round of conventions, in 2008, was another year brimming with memorable moments, from Sarah Palin’s rip-roaring debut speech in St. Paul, Minn., that ignited the GOP and convinced the party it had a chance to win, to Barack Obama’s historic nomination and acceptance speech before 85,000 rapt fans in a Denver football stadium. But when the financial crisis hit in mid-September, the Obama speech became inconsequential and the Palin pick seemed rash.

Here are some notable convention narratives, both failed and successful:


The infamous brouhaha of the Democratic convention in Chicago — protesters lining the convention halls and city streets — showed a party at war with itself as much as with the GOP. The conflict between the Democrats and police showed that what happens off the stage can matter more than what happens on it.

The Republican presidential nominee, Richard Nixon, meanwhile ran a campaign and convention dedicated to showing voters he was competent. Even if they had doubts about Nixon, said Henry Brady, a political-science professor at the University of California (Berkeley), they gravitated toward the GOP in light of the other party’s disorganization. “His message was, 'I’m really competent, everybody knows I’m competent,' ” Brady said. Nixon went on to win the presidency.


The convention didn’t go much better for Democrats in 1980. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s primary bid against President Jimmy Carter culminated in his famous “The dream will never die” convention speech, laying out his vision of his party and country. It’s not a good sign when the most noteworthy moment at a convention comes not from the presidential nominee, but his failed challenger. The bitterness between the two men was apparent. “That kind of showed, right there to viewers in their living rooms, that this was not a united Democratic Party,” said Tom Whalen, a political-science professor at Boston University.

GOP nominee Ronald Reagan’s convention couldn’t have been more different. The former governor of California emphasized the party’s unity, according to GOP consultant Keith Appell, to devastating effect. “The theme for Reagan in 1980 was ‘Together, A New Beginning,’ which emphasized Republican unity behind the conservative Reagan in the midst of a bitter internal fight between Carter and Kennedy that played all the way through the Democratic convention,” Appell said. “ 'Together, A New Beginning’ was emblazoned across the top of the podium and constantly visible throughout the entire four days. That was brilliant.”


Reagan was riding the wave of a resurgent economy in 1984. But the acceptance speech of his Democratic rival that year, Walter Mondale, didn’t hurt his chances, either.

The former vice president told voters point-blank that he would raise their taxes. The truth, Mondale explained, was Reagan would, too — he just wouldn’t tell them so. “Everybody went, 'OK, thanks for being honest, and we’ll see you,' ” said Craig Smith, a former speechwriter for presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. “It was a nice ploy, but it didn’t do a thing.”


The problem of mismanaged conventions turned on Republicans in 1992. Patrick Buchanan, a former Nixon and Reagan aide who had challenged President George H.W. Bush in the GOP primaries, delivered a fiery speech urging Republicans to fight and win the culture war against “abortion on demand,” “homosexual rights,” women in combat, and “radical feminism” as embodied by Hillary Clinton. “Buchanan’s culture-war speech is what the media went after, and it made the convention seem more divisive than it was,” Smith said.

Buchanan’s comments weren’t the only culturally divisive ones, however. Marilyn Quayle, wife of Vice President Dan Quayle, criticized Bill Clinton and an entire generation of Americans when she said: “Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution, or dodged the draft.”

“When Republicans were trying to show they were doing a good job carrying on Reagan’s legacy, they got bogged down” in the culture war, Brady said.

Clinton’s hopeful, youthful, energetic convention, captured by its theme of “The Man From Hope,” was a stark contrast. Not even Reagan’s address at the Republican convention, the final major speech of his life, could compete with that.


Clinton was on the winning side of another convention duel four years later. His opponent, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, told his convention that he was born in 1923 and urged them to “let me be the bridge” to time of American “tranquility, faith and confidence in action.” He gave Clinton the perfect opening. The president responded that he wanted to build a “bridge to the future.”

“The best was Clinton in 1996, when they talked about being a bridge to the future and the 21st century,” Appell said. “It was gift wrapped for them by Dole. Every election is about the future and they played it perfectly.”


The theme made sense for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. The Vietnam veteran, in an election defined by war, terrorism, and persistent perceptions that Democrats were weak on national security, sought to underscore his military credentials. “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” he said as he bounded onstage, and saluted the crowd.

But voters weren’t impressed. Whereas most presidential candidates can expect a bump in the polls after their conventions, Kerry actually lost support in Gallup’s tracking. President Bush went on to win a close reelection that year.