x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

US nominating conventions no substitute for main event

The scene is now set for a hectic, heated and very partisan presidential election in November.

Tradition holds that it is only now, with the Republican and Democratic party conventions over, that voters will actually begin to focus on the choices before them in the US presidential race and the campaigns will, therefore, now begin in earnest.

But this year has been different. Potential voters have been paying attention and a substantial percentage claim to have already made up their minds. Most polls are showing this election to be a dead heat, with the candidates tied or separated by just one percentage point. Many of the 10 to 15 per cent of voters who still claim to be undecided will, in all likelihood, not vote.

And so this election may not be decided by winning over undecided "swing voters" as much as it will be determined by the candidate who best energises and mobilises his party's faithful. That will be a major focus of the campaign, as it was of the just-completed conventions.

Party conventions were once scenes of high drama. Delegates would go to the quadrennial meeting to decide on the nominee and to debate their party's platform. But conventions today are scripted media events, where the images of the candidates are defined, their messages projected, and if the convention is successful, the faithful are inspired and energised.

President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, faced somewhat similar challenges in their respective conventions. Mr Romney had to "close the deal" with his party's conservative base, that did not trust his commitment to conservative principles, and better define himself as a "regular guy" for Republican-leaning independent voters, who could not identify with his "rich man" image. He relied on his running mate to accomplish the first objective, and his wife to achieve the second. To a degree both succeeded, at least with the party loyalists.

President Obama also had to close the deal with his supporters. He had to address the disappointment of some with the fact that he had not been able to live up to the overly high expectations that ushered in his presidency. He had to make a convincing argument as to why he deserved another term in which to solve problems still plaguing the United States. Relying on his own oratorical skills would not be enough. And so the president called on former President Clinton, rising star Elizabeth Warren, who is a Senate candidate in Massachusetts, and Vice President Joe Biden to validate the claim that his approach is working, and then ask for another term to finish the work he has started.

It was around these themes that the conventions were structured. At the Republican affair in Tampa, Florida, speakers upbraided President Obama for not creating jobs, saying that he has no idea how the economy worked. They argued that the reason for his failure was that he relied on government instead of individual initiative.

At the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the other hand, speaker after speaker told stories of how their lives had improved because of the policies implemented by the administration: jobs saved, health care delivered, education more affordable, women's rights protected, businesses started and soldiers now home from Iraq and employed or going to school.

A repeating theme was the contrasting philosophies of the standard bearers of the Democratic and Republican parties. Mr Obama believes government can play an important role in boosting the economy when it is required to do so. Mr Romney's view is that government should get out of the way of people so that the initiative of enterprising individuals can be freed to grow the economy.

The economy - and the parties' opposing views on how to improve it - were the main focus of conversation at both conventions.

The only real prime-time focus given to foreign policy was the duelling addresses given by two former presidential hopefuls: Arizona Senator John McCain (at the Republican convention) and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (at the Democratic convention).

They differed like night and day, with Mr Kerry presenting a portrait of President Obama as a tough and decisive leader, who while strong enough to get Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, remains supportive of engagement, diplomacy, and steps to improve America's image around the world.

Mr McCain, on the other hand, was irascible and hawkish. Using the language of his neoconservative advisers, Mr McCain criticised the president for betraying allies and not doing enough militarily to confront Syria and Iran.

The conventions ended with both party's delegates and activists energised and ready to work. In that sense, both meetings were a success. There are now less than two months to go before the election. It will be hectic, heated and more partisan than usual.

On to November.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa