A tale of two uninspiring speeches

What President Obama offered the country on the final night of the Democratic convention was reminiscent of what Warren G. Harding offered almost a century ago: A return to normalcy after a long period of emergency.

Ezra Klein, the Washington Post

Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein can usually make anything that President Obama says sound inspirational. He is a fan of the president and makes few bones about it. So when he can do no better than compare the president’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention to former President Warren Harding, that in itself says something. This morning, many pundits are concluding that Obama’s speech never got going, that something did not work, that the old Obama magic was missing. That may become the consensus. Let me be the contrarian. Maybe Obama thinks that all he needs to do is run out the clock.

Obama had the advantage of knowing that GOP nominee Mitt Romney delivered an acceptance speech at the Republican convention that burned no barns. One of Romney’s inner circle of consultants said that the best thing about Romney’s speech was that “he made no unforced errors.”

Radnor has been looking at what people who vote rather than pontificate or spin are saying in focus groups: Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney moved voters in their acceptance speeches. That is the conclusion of several focus groups during and just after each speech, including a quick overnight analysis of the reaction to the Obama speech. Truly undecided voters are fewer this year than at this point in previous elections, perhaps due to better research methods and analysis. But that is a subject for another time. Now, let’s see what already committed voters thought of their candidate’s convention performance.

Partisans were left wanting more

The most notable finding is that partisans in both camps were left wanting more. These are people who work for the candidate of their choice. They may make phone calls, attend events, knock on doors, send a contribution or put the candidate’s sign in their yard.

Typical of the reactions of committed Republicans was a man in Ohio: “It was good, it was okay, but I don’t think it convinced anybody. I mean, if you were wondering about Romney and trying to decide, well, maybe you’re still wondering. Anyway, it didn’t turn anybody away, I don’t think, so we should be happy. I’m relieved that it wasn’t, I mean, bad or anything, just not as good as it could have been, somehow.”

A committed North Carolina Democrat said: “This wasn’t what I sort of hoped for. I guess it’s like somebody said, how it’s not really possible to catch the magic in a bottle again. I don’t know. This speech wasn’t what we expected, sort of, was it? I was, sort of, waiting for him to get going and he never really did. I was hoping he’d seal the deal, you know? He sort of left things like they are. That speech by (former President) Clinton, do you think Clinton raised our expectations, sort of raised the bar, do you think, so whatever Obama did wasn’t going to be enough?”

NOTE: Radnor Reports contributor Peter Feltman, asked by a columnist to comment on the Obama speech, said: “Maybe the best news for Obama is (former President) Clinton. We all know Clinton is a master. Maybe Obama can slip by as people recall how good Clinton can be.”

Uncommitted and unmoved

Next, let’s try to sum up the truly uncommitted voters with two comments from Colorado. One uncommitted voter discussed Romney: “Romney seems capable enough, I guess. Anyway, that’s what the Obama ads are trying to destroy. (They’re trying to destroy) Romney’s business ability. But Romney doesn’t fight back. He just seems to be saying ‘this is it, take it or leave it.’ I’m in sales so maybe I’m used to a little more selling. Romney’s just saying ‘Obama’s not able to fix things and here I am.’ I’d like a little more from Romney.”

Another uncommitted Coloradan discussed Obama: “He sounds like he’s out of fuel. He said before that he deserves an incomplete because nobody could have done better so we should vote for him. This speech started slow and I think it was slow because he doesn’t know where to go. Does that make sense? Is that what anybody else thought?”

NOTE: Radnor Reports contributor Mark Rhoads points out that, “almost all Obama speeches sound more impressive to the ear when they are first delivered to an audience. But when you read the text the next day to hunt for specific content, the speech seems more empty and detached from the needs of the audience.” We know from analysis of news coverage that Obama tends to get the most favorable reaction immediately after he finishes. Subsequent reporting is likely to be more critical. But are people still paying attention?

Fixin’ to get ready

A Radnor research analyst in California summed up his reactions late last night after reviewing comments from eight focus groups: “One clear finding is that the Obama supporters are not motivated this year like last time. Another thing I see is that Romney may have missed his chance to promote himself. People are telling us they’re tired of all this and that may mean they tune out.”

The analyst may be right: From most indications, the Obama brain trust has concluded that people are tired of this long campaign and will tune into something else – football? – unless forced to focus on the election. We know that the Obama campaign is confident that Obama has a small but consistent lead. We know that they realize that their supporters are not enthused. Why raise your head? Why rock the boat? When you have the lead, your best strategy may be to keep quiet.

Indeed, Romney may have waited too long to start spending his war chest. To quote an old Southern expression, voters may have moved on while Romney was “fixin’ to get ready.”

The one thing that will force people to pay attention is the Obama-Romney debate. The Obama people are confident. They figure that the pundits will declare Obama the winner within seconds after the debate ends. The Romney people see it differently. They have concluded that all their man needs to do is “hold his own” in the debate while his advertising dollars hack away at Obama. But Mark Rhoads is correct: Obama is best right after he finishes. If attention spans have reached their limits, the morning-after analysis will go for naught.

Sliding by

Our California researcher has one more thought: “The last thing I wonder about is my theory – and other people have said this, too – that when people aren’t motivated to support either candidate, they tend to try the new guy. If that is right, then Romney may win by default.” Maybe, but who charts a strategy that is so defensive, so withdrawn, that it rests on sliding by and winning by default?

Actually, when you listen to what the campaigns are saying, you realize that it is Obama who is planning to win by default.

(A version of this will appear in Politico on Saturday, September 8, 2012.)

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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