The party conventions are behind us, and we have 99 days of one of the ugliest presidential election in history to go. This post is a recap of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia in terms of viewership, production quality, speakers, themes, truthiness, protests, post-convention bounce, and significance.
Setting aside President George Washington’s admonition of the parties as dangerous in his farewell address, they serve many vital purposes, one of which is to simplify the choice between candidates. The party conventions did just that by highlighting the stark differences between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton. (I understand how Harambe is polling at 5%, but how is any American still undecided about this race?)
First, some context. Party conventions have been media infomercials rather than forums to actually select a nominee for the past four decades as a result of primary election rules that ensure nominees are selected prior to the conventions. (The last contested convention was in 1976 when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan duked it out for the Republican nomination on the floor.) It is no surprise, then, that convention viewership and hours of broadcast time have declined since 1960. Conventions just aren’t very exciting anymore.
The 2016 conventions posted moderate viewership numbers compared to recent elections. On average, more Americans tuned in to watch the DNC (29.2 million over four nights) than the RNC (25.2 million). However, more people tuned in to hear Trump’s speech than Clinton’s speech (34.9 million viewers compared to 33.3 million viewers). Both candidates fell short of the record for the highest ratings set by John McCain (38.9 million) and Barack Obama (38.3 million) in 2008.
The Democrats put on a much better show than the Republicans. Both had fancy sets and polished speakers, but the DNC had celebrity power. The convention featured Alicia Keys, Paul Simon, Meryl Streep, Lenny Kravitz, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Sarah Silverman, and others. Hollywood stars, including Jane Fonda and Eva Longoria, came together in a video to sing “Fight Song,” which now is in regular rotation on Los Angeles pop stations (see video below).
The RNC featured Scott Baio from Happy Days, soap actor and underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr., and Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty. The celebrity gap no doubt accounted for at least part of the ratings advantage for Democrats.
The RNC was also unpredictable and sometimes bizarre, full of unforced errors: Melania’s plagiarism and (awesome but awkward) rickrolling in her speech; questions about plagiarism in Donald Trump, Jr’s speech (which turned out to be his speechwriter cribbing his own previous work); honey badger Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump in his speech (see video below); and Trump’s gross grab of his daughter Ivanka’s hips on stage.
The Democrats also had their fair share of problems with the damning #DNCLeaks that show a clear DNC preference for Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primary; the subsequent resignation of party chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz just days before the convention; and a disruptive #BernieorBust contingent inside and outside the convention hall in Philly.
Beyond the celebrity gap, the Democrats offered more varied content for viewers. The DNC had twice as many speakers as the RNC (257 compared to 131), mostly because few sitting Republican lawmakers attended their convention. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush skipped the Republican convention, and only 24 members of Congress spoke at the RNC compared to 73 who spoke at the DNC.
There were also notable differences in the quality of the convention speeches. For me, political speeches are mostly mind-numbingly boring because they employ platitudes, hokey colloquialisms, and fake emotions. I can barely make it through a political speech without a drinking game (I’m referring to coffee, of course). Looking past the serviceable speeches from Trump and Clinton, most of the Republican speeches were pat and predicatable, but many of the Democratic speeches were well above par.
In terms of my top five, Michelle Obama’s speech was simply the best in terms of delivery and emotional impact, while President Obama’s speech later in the week came in a close second for its soaring rhetoric and effective evisceration of the Republican nominee. Donald Trump, Jr.’s speech comes in third for his superb delivery and impressive Clinton takedowns. The speech from Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, comes in fourth on my list for his memorable offer to loan Trump his Constitution (a.k.a. Pocket Connie). Joe Biden’s gritty swan song rounds out my top five list. Uncle Joe was in rare form, vacillating between folksy humor and angry passion in a way that kept viewer’s rapt.
Another sharp difference between the RNC and the DNC was the humanization of the candidates. Clinton has been painted as a caricature by the Right and some members of the Left, and Trump has painted himself as a caricature with his bombastic performance of masculinity. The DNC humanized Clinton, but the RNC failed to humanize Trump. Bill Clinton’s rambling address and Chelsea Clinton’s heartfelt but dull speech were full of personal details that gave viewers a sense of life with Hillary. The same cannot be said for the five speeches from Trump family members (Melania, Tiffany, Donald, Jr., Eric, and Ivanka). It felt more like the Trump kids were describing their general manager rather than their father, and each speech felt like a missed opportunity to challenge the critique that Trump has an empathy deficit.
The themes of the RNC and the DNC could not have been clearer or more divergent. While many issues were covered at both conventions, the prevailing themes were fear (RNC) and love (DNC). I’m pretty sure the Democrats scrambled to amplify their positive content after watching a week of doom and gloom at the RNC, but I had reached my saccharine limit well before Lenny Kravitz belted out “Let Love Rule.” (Side note: I now blast “Let Love Rule” during the hour each day my Rush Limbaugh-loving neighbor, “Mr. Wilson,” waters his tree during the worst drought in a century.) Even Trump barbs felt like toothpicks from goody two shoes Tim Kaine with his boyish grin with his four harmonicas.
Fact-checking websites would be a powerful tool for holding candidates accountable if more voters actually cared to. According to Politifact, Clinton’s acceptance speech was far more truthful than Trump’s. Only two out of six major claims in Trump’s speech were found to be “mostly true,” while five out of six major claims in Clinton’s speech were “mostly true.” This is not surprising. During the primary, Clinton was found to be the most honest candidate on the campaign trail and Trump was the least honest. (I witnessed the heads of two diehard Berners actually explode when this finding was published back in May, or maybe I dreamed that part.)
The protests in Philly were much larger than the protests in Cleveland, mostly due to Sanders’ supporters, some of whom clung to a snowball’s chance hope of nominating their man. The minor disruption caused by the #DumpTrump camp on the first day of the RNC paled in comparison to four days of raucous protests both inside and outside the Democratic convention.
Inside the DNC hall, Bernie supporters regularly disrupted the proceedings with chants, and organizers responded by turning off the overhead lights in certain sections to prevent them from being seen by television viewers. Enterprising Bernie supporters responded in turn by donning glow-in-the-dark shirts. And if you were wondering why pro-Clinton chants cropped up in the last two days of the convention, Clinton supporters were instructed to yell chants to drown out chants from Bernie supporters, for example “U.S.A.” in response to “No More War.”
Outside the Democratic convention in Philly, protesters burned flags and breached security fences (see video below).
The only major clash at the RNC took place on day three of the convention when members of the Communist Party set two flags on fire just feet from where I was standing with my colleague, Beck Cooper (a.k.a. Wreck-It-Beck). This incident resulted in 17 arrests (see video below).
The RNC spent $49 million on security and brought over 4,000 police officers from across the country to Cleveland (see video below). Philadelphia spent $43 million on security with staffing from 6,600 local police officers. Overall, 24 protesters were arrested at the RNC. Over 50 protesters were detained and cited at the DNC, but only 11 people were actually arrested because Mayor Jim Kenney decriminalized disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, failure to disperse, and other offences just for the convention.
Candidates typically enjoy about a 5% bounce in the polls after their party’s convention. Trump got a 4-point bounce in the polls after the RNC, and Clinton got a 5-point bounce, but many voters continue to be disenchanted with both candidates. Only 43% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans are satisfied with their party’s nominee.
Party conventions almost never affect the outcome of elections. Parties with the highest convention viewership win the White House only 50% of the time, and post-convention candidate poll bounces are referred to as “sugar highs” because they quickly evaporate. Also, the conventions were held early this year to avoid protracted divisions, to extend the fundraising calendar, and to avoid competing with the Olympics. They will be a distant memory by the time November 8th rolls around.
The Mars-Venus nature of the convention themes mirror deep chasms in an electorate divided by generation, race, gender, and education. One silver lining is that Americans have high interest in this election, which is great for democracy. We captured some of this intensity and passion through interviews with activists across the political spectrum at the RNC (see video below).