Concentrate on a few clear goals. Assume voters know less about your candidate than you think they do. Biography trumps policy, but the gold standard is marrying the two. Personal glimpses are more valuable than political testimonials. And always look forward.
Those were the central guideposts for a successful national political convention most often cited by strategists from both parties I spoke with over the past week who have been involved in planning one.
For the 77-year-old Joe Biden, who is claiming his party’s presidential nomination fully 50 years after he was first elected to office, these experts say those rules condense to one overriding imperative for the Democratic convention that began Monday night: Demonstrate that he’s relevant to the challenges of life in America today.
“One of the challenges for someone like Biden: You have been in the public eye for so long that you are viewed as a suit,” says Erik Smith, a public affairs consultant who served as creative director for the Democratic conventions from 2008 through 2016. “That’s a hurdle Joe Biden has to get over. He has to figure out how to make himself more relatable to people, so they understand who he really is — and not just a 77-year-old White man who’s been in office 50 years.”
As the convention begins, Biden in most respects is in a historically strong position for a challenger. He holds a consistent lead in national and battleground state polls over President Donald Trump, whose approval rating has drifted down to a little over 40% amid his erratic response to the coronavirus pandemic and belligerent posture toward racial justice protesters this spring.
But Biden’s own personal ratings are mediocre at best, especially among Americans younger than 50, who many Democrats acknowledge remain dubious that he understands their lives and challenges.
Erasing some of those doubts and convincing them to see Biden as more than just a career politician with too many wrinkles, many analysts in both parties believe, may be a more important goal for the former vice president this week than maximizing the traditional convention “bump” and swelling his lead in the horse race against Trump. For Biden, showing that he has a vision germane to American life today “is his biggest challenge,” says GOP strategist Scott Reed.
Reed should know: He served as the campaign manager in the 1996 presidential campaign of Bob Dole, another candidate of advanced age and long Washington experience who faced — and famously flunked — the same test of relevance confronting Biden today. Indeed, Dole’s experience in 1996 — when he tried to confront concern about his age head-on at his convention and inadvertently handed his opponent, then-President Bill Clinton, the argument that sealed his reelection –offers a cautionary tale for Biden this week.
The role of the convention has changed enormously since they were established in the 1830s as the meeting where party leaders gathered to select their presidential nominees. With that role supplanted after 1968 by voters through primaries and caucuses, the conventions have evolved into weeklong television shows that offer each party its best opportunity to present its message — and introduce its nominee — to voters in a coordinated and uninterrupted fashion. That long-term shift is reaching its apotheosis this year with a Democratic convention that, because of the pandemic, will consist solely of speeches and performances delivered remotely.
Yet, without exception, the convention planners I spoke with over the past week said the fundamental rules to using the week effectively still apply. These planners from both parties say the foundational insight for a successful convention is to recognize it as one of the only opportunities, other than the presidential debates, to talk to the millions of presidential-year voters who don’t follow politics as carefully as those who participate in midterm elections, much less the activists who turn out for each party’s nominating primaries.
‘The most important thing is who they are’
As Democratic consultant and CNN commentator Paul Begala notes, Biden won about 17.5 million votes in the Democratic primaries; to win the general election, he may need as many as 70 million.
“The gulf between the 17.5 million who know him and voted for him and the 70 million he needs is vast,” Begala says. “You cannot presume anything” about how much they know about the nominee, he adds.
If anything, says Mark McKinnon, the senior media strategist for George W. Bush in both of his presidential races, every candidate who isn’t already the incumbent president should go into the convention assuming the country knows less about him or her than they expect. That’s always a little difficult for campaigns to believe, he notes, because they have just been through a consuming months-long primary that has commanded rapt attention from political activists and journalists. But for much of the country, that passes as distantly as a storm on the horizon.
“We in the business think the whole world is watching during the primaries, but it’s the people who are being affected by the primary [who are watching], and the other people are ignoring it,” McKinnon told me. “The convention really is the first time the whole country has an opportunity to see your guy or your gal.”
With that broader audience, convention planners generally say, the most important objective is to humanize the candidate. Given the choice between telling the personal story and laying out a policy agenda, all of the half dozen top convention planners I spoke with from both parties pointed to the same priority.
“It’s more the former, because it’s the only time that you get the unadulterated eyes of the country on you and we wanted [them] to walk away with a strong sense of who he was in totality as a person,” says Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager for John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, and now the CEO at the Democratic National Committee.
Trump, as in many things, was the exception. In Trump’s 2016 acceptance speech, he mentioned his family only perfunctorily toward the end, and he barely discussed his life experiences at all — perhaps a reflection of the distance between his gilded upbringing and the working-class voters he was primarily targeting. Instead, in a preview of his presidency, he offered an unusually dark and stormy address that portrayed his supporters as under siege both from rising crime and contemptuous elites who he said had sold out middle America through policies on trade and immigration.
Far more often, convention planners have stressed the nominees’ personal stories.
“The most important thing is who they are, who are these people at their core, what is their character, what has their life experience been about,” McKinnon told me.
Candidates recognize that opportunity too. McKinnon remembers riding in the car with Bush on the way to deliver his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia in 2000. McKinnon thought that Bush, who had won only two elections in Texas before his nomination, would be tense about addressing such a large national and international audience, so he decided not to speak to him. Then McKinnon heard a surprising sound.
“All of a sudden I hear whistling. … Somebody is whistling ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ ” the classic gospel song, McKinnon remembered. “I thought it was the radio. Then I realized that it was Bush. That seemed to me incredibly Zen-like or weird. I turned to him and said, ‘Aren’t you thinking about other stuff? Aren’t you nervous?’ He’s like, ‘I’ve never been more at ease in my life.’ I said, ‘How is that?’ He said, ‘Because I feel so confident that today I have the opportunity to show the world who I am, without somebody else telling the world who I am. I know I get to do it in my own words, in my own way.'”
‘Elections are always about the future’
Even candidates like Biden who have been in the public eye for decades need to treat the convention as something of a first date, these experts say.
“Conventions really are a way to reintroduce the nominee,” said Reed, the former campaign manager for Dole. “You have to go into it with that attitude, because the majority of the country doesn’t know these candidates. …”
Dole’s situation paralleled Biden’s in important respects. Dole was 73 and had first been elected to state office in Kansas 46 years before he first won his party’s nomination, at the time the widest such span in American history. (The 50 years between Biden’s first election to the New County Delaware County Council in 1970 and his first nomination sets a new record.)
Like Biden’s team now, Dole’s staff then was acutely aware that many voters held concerns about his age, particularly his understanding of a changing America. Dole’s team chose to address those concerns directly in his speech. In an eloquent passage, Dole, a World War II veteran whose small Kansas town supported him during his grueling recovery from grievous wounds in battle, presented himself as the catalyst to restore a more caring and connected America.
“Age has its advantages,” Dole declared. “Let me be the bridge to an America that only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action.”
Only a few minutes after Dole spoke those words at the GOP convention in San Diego, Begala recalled, the phone rang at his home in Austin, Texas, where he was watching the speech. Begala’s caller was someone he described as “a certain resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” in other words his friend and client, Clinton.
“I don’t believe I would say that,” Begala recalled the then-President telling him that night. “I said, ‘Why, sir? It was beautiful.’ He said, ‘No one wants a bridge to the past.’ He saw that from the jump, as the words came out from Dole’s mouth: Elections are always about the future, not the past.”
Indeed, a few days later at his own convention, Clinton transmuted Dole’s soaring pledge into a debilitating anchor. After warmly praising Dole for his decades of service to the country, Clinton said, “I love and revere the rich and proud history of America. … But with all respect, we do not need to build a bridge to the past, we need to build a bridge to the future. …”
Even Reed agrees the senator never quite recovered from that moment. “Once that was baked in, it was hard to get back,” Reed told me.
Biden has big advantages today that Dole did not. Most importantly, while Clinton had pushed his approval rating back past 50% by the summer of 1996, Trump is stuck below 45% in all national polls. As a result, Biden is operating with a much bigger audience of voters who are discontented with the incumbent than Dole enjoyed. In contrast with the huge age gap between Clinton and Dole, Biden’s age is less conspicuous because Trump is also over 70.
But Dole’s unhappy experience captures perhaps job one for Biden at this week’s convention. Like Dole, Biden can point to a life of glowing achievement accumulated over bruising adversity — in Biden’s case the death of his first wife and his young daughter in a car crash just as he was elected to the Senate at age 29, and decades later the death of his adult son, Beau, from brain cancer. His challenge will be convincing even voters who view him as personally admirable that those experiences equip him to understand and improve their own lives.
‘The candidate has to deliver’
An insight from Clinton’s first convention speech might offer Biden his most plausible path to crossing that bar. Clinton was enveloped in controversy through his 1992 run to the Democratic nomination, including allegations of infidelity and evidence that he had maneuvered to avoid the draft for Vietnam while attending Georgetown, Yale and Oxford University in England. The result, Begala recalled, was that many voters assumed he was a child of privilege, “a wealthy ne’er-do-well tooling around in his father’s Alfa Romeo living off of a trust fund.”
In fact, Clinton had been raised in difficult circumstances by his mother and an alcoholic stepfather. Much of the convention, including a riveting biographical film, was devoted to providing those details for voters. The effort culminated in Clinton’s acceptance speech when he pledged to govern for “the forgotten middle class.”
“I am a product of that middle class,” Clinton dramatically declared. “And when I am president you will be forgotten no more.”
The underlying message, Begala noted, was that Clinton’s “values grew out of his experience and his agenda grew out of his values. … Every word of that speech was trying to build that bridge from biography to values to policy.”
Biden, with his throwback locutions and extended Washington pedigree, is unlikely to ever strike younger voters as someone personally attuned to their experiences. But, these former convention strategists say, he might establish the same connection Clinton did between his own setbacks and the strains so many Americans feel today.
“I think Biden’s answer is empathy,” Smith says in comments echoed by several of those I spoke with. “If I’m part of his camp, I’m thinking it is much more important [for viewers] to understand why Biden makes the decisions he does, which is based on his personal history, than it is about his long career making these decisions.”
Democrats showed that they recognize the importance of that theme on Monday night when Michelle Obama declared in her high-profile convention speech, “He will govern as someone who has lived a life that the rest of us can recognize.”
The former convention planners agree on one final point: The job of establishing that personal connection with voters falls largely to the nominee. Others can play a supporting role. Joel Benenson, the pollster for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, said it is valuable for candidates “to have some surprising or irrefutable advocates” making the case for them — as Biden did Monday night with former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and three other Republicans who endorsed him. The convention will also highlight younger Democrats, particularly Tuesday night, when a diverse procession of rising stars headlined by 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams will replace the traditional keynote address.
But in the end, these experts agree, it’s the nominee who has to close the sale.
“Some of it can be carried by others,” Cahill says. “People can say things about you … that any self-effacing person does not want to say. But there is also the measure the viewers take of the candidate at that time, which is the first time that a lot of them are paying attention. That measure is the most important thing.”
McKinnon is even more emphatic. The reaction to the nominee’s speech, he says, is “90%” of a convention’s success or failure. The rest? “It’s really all just window dressing for the main event,” he says. “Just tinsel and glitter to try to create excitement. At the end of the day, the candidate has to deliver.”
After a spring and summer largely locked away from view, Biden will get his chance to deliver on Thursday night.