To put it briefly, the Democratic and Republican conventions were not a game-changer in the Presidential race. President Obama had favorable momentum going into them, and should have it coming out of them. His narrow popular vote edge in national polls (among likely voters) conceals a more substantial lead in electoral votes.
Is There a Story Here?
The news value of the national conventions has dropped in recent electoral cycles: There are few surprises, the messages are managed. Not even much new information, really. I saw three storylines which dominated much of the discussion during the conventions themselves:
1) Paul Ryan as serial liar? His speech's effect was severely undercut by several factually-challenged statements. Ryan's job as VP candidate for the challengers will be as attack dog; he will have to be more selective, though, in the charges he accepts into his speeches. More generally, Ryan's status as a leading light in John Boehner's House of Orange was not something the Republicans cared to celebrate.
2) the Democrats' second thoughts on their platform: The original draft had two "mistakes"--removal of the Deist reference to American workers' "God-given potential" and to Jerusalem as the real capital of Israel. These were errors of political formulaic expression, not of policy: the international community has not recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, because it is the subject of (theoretically) ongoing negotiations on the permanent status of the West Bank and Palestinians, and neither has the U.S. government--through both Republican and Democratic administrations. As for where our "potential" comes from, the delegates (and Obama behind them) decided to offend the atheists instead of failing to nod to the believers--a traditional stance, and not very controversial. The tempest in the teapot was that some delegates booed the amendments' adoption by voice vote; the platform is a very moderate, inoffensive document and these changes--hypocritical though they may be--fit right in.
3) The Battle of the Spouses' Speeches: The argument was over who was better, but I think that was misplaced: They aren't running against each other, and both came across very well. Ann Romney had a more difficult task, to humanize her husband, but expectations were lower for her. Michelle Obama is a practiced, skilled speaker with a fairly simple theme--he's still the same guy as ever. And, of course, she nailed it.
Who Zoomed Who More?
Like the phony debate over the better spouse speech, there was much phony discussion about who among the Democrats gave the best of the many good speeches: John Kerry zinged the Republicans' follies, Michelle provided warm and fuzzy feelings, Joe Biden gave an effective pitch. Most observers gave the edge, though, to former President Bill Clinton, who provided an extensive, point-by-point argument (not a "brief", by any means) for a second term. Speaking from the perspective of one who has been there, and using language which spoke directly to voters, neither over their heads nor insulting their intelligence, Clinton went deep, long and convincingly for the man who defeated his wife in the bitter 2008 nomination campaign. Clinton deserves all the credit he has gotten for his statesmanlike performance; perhaps not all the (bipartisan!) adulation and nostalgically enhanced memory of his administration.
Personally, I always find Clinton too long-winded, and this speech was no exception. I thought Biden deserved better treatment, and I preferred Elizabeth Warren's combative warmup for Clinton (though programmatically a little out of synch with his centrist policy preferences). Anyway, those who opt for one performance or another are missing the point: the convention's main speeches were set up to provide a complete experience, filling in all the background and major details for the finale.
The Tilt of Our Returning Champion Jouster
Which brings us to President Obama's speech. Reactions have generally tended to two extremes: either totally unimpressed with the lack of soaring rhetoric, inspiration, or even specific policies, or on the other extreme, a terrific speech worthy of his best performances. My own opinion is mixed: He did what he needed to do, what he and his campaign wanted him to do, but I wanted more. It takes a bit longer to explain my dissatisfactions than my satisfactions with the speech.
1) His Specifics Limited Him: I can understand the reasons why Obama should not make great promises at this time, but some of the promises he did make concern me. Obama is well aware of the debt limit and budget negotiations coming up just after his election, but his speech's promises box him into a difficult negotiation strategy. He promised on the one hand to cut deficits by $4 trillion dollars, but on the other hand he put the mortgage deduction, entitlement benefits, and the middle-class tax break all off limits. As both he and Clinton said about the Paul Ryan budget, "the arithmetic" doesn't add up for his approach--reducing tax breaks for the wealthy, plus non-entitlement discretionary spending cuts won't get there. The deal he will have to make, assuming his re-election: prolong the tax cuts--rich and poor--for just another year or two, substitute targeted defense cuts for the across-the-board ones, and phase in additional payroll taxes to support Medicare/Medicaid in 2-3 years (when, hopefully, the recovery will be stronger).
2) He did not appeal to disaffected Republican moderates: I guess that was supposed to be Clinton's task, but, just as the Republicans made overt appeal to disappointed Democrats, there are millions of moderate--or even moderately conservative--Republicans who are disenchanted with the extreme tack taken by the national Republican party. While I buy the argument--one that you rarely hear, but most political operatives would admit--that there are few likely voters who do not have at least some leaning already to one side or the other of our intensely divided politics, Obama's policies and political stance is truly moderate enough that he can make a bid for those who have not drunk the Tea Party Kool-Aid, with its denial of science, false conservative intrusion into our privacy, and voodoo economics. He did not really do so; neither did any other Democratic speaker, with the exception of former Florida Governor Charlie Crist.
3)He made no appeal for the need to win back Congress: I believe strongly that Obama has a small but stable lead that he will most likely retain, but it will avail Obama little in his second term if he lacks control of both houses of Congress. He says it's not all about him, he may be feeling outspent, and surely those down the ticket will benefit from turnout in support of his re-election, and finally he is likely to support the Congressional candidates more once he's sure he's going to be re-elected, but he needs to get out in front of that objective more: his message must be, "If you support me, you need also to go out and vote for, work for, and financially support the Senate and House candidates running where you live. Otherwise, what change can we accomplish together?"
1) He showed humility: I was a little worried when he stated, early on, "Things are different. I am the President." (and you're not!) But he built the key theme of his speech about how he needs us--"You give me hope"--and he quoted the greatest of all Americans, Lincoln, in citing his many failings and his need to pray for help. He admitted his shortcomings without showing weakness.
2) He touted his foreign/military policy successes: Not just that--and his administration has a great deal to brag about--he got in a couple of well-aimed digs at the weaknesses of Romney-Ryan in that area. The Democrats have gained the appearance of the party of responsible governance, the steady hand guiding the ship of state; in large measure they have the Bushites and the Tea Party to thank for that, but also they are starting to build a history of better guidance of state affairs and, for that matter, better performance in the stock markets and in job growth (something Clinton hit upon most effectively).
3) He drew upon his community organizer and religious revival experience: Obama's campaign leadership is staking their hopes for the endgame not on buying votes with saturation levels of TV ads in the key markets of the swing states, but on a furious get-out-the-vote campaign. The whole tone of his speech aimed at this strategy.
And Coming Up Fast into Our Windshield...
One thing I'm fairly happy about is that the electoral campaign seems to be going by quickly, without a lot of movement. The margins--and I am relying here primarily upon 538.com for the detailed analysis of the state-by-state probabilities--are holding, or slightly increasing. Right now, in Nate's analysis (which looks at current polling margins, historical tendencies in the state, and the likelihood based on electoral history of a margin of the current size being erased), there is exactly one state (North Carolina) in which the probability of one candidate (or the other) winning is less than 60%--and that is now quoted at 58.4% (for Romney). Between 60-70%, there is one state (Florida, at 65.5% for Obama). There are four states between 70-80%: Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, and Ohio (!), all with the odds in Obama's favor; and there are several states between 80-90% probability: Indiana, Missouri, Arizona, and Montana in Romney's favor, and New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Nevada in Obama's favor. All the rest are at 90% or more in one candidate's favor, and thus should be considered near to sure things. The electoral vote with these most likely results would be 332-206 Obama, the same as in my post on the subject two months ago.
Still, the debates could turn the momentum, and I would say that Gov. Romney, who is a strong debater, is likely to "win" one or more of those debates; however, based on what I have seen, Obama seems likely to take advantage of Romney any time the discussion strays from Romney's organizational acumen or a President's alleged capability to manage the economy. There is little else that could turn things from the rather solidified bases of support--and I discount the likelihood that a Vice-Presidential debate could do it. Some sort of terrible gaffe by Obama that reveals that he really doesn't care about the middle-class, white people, brown people, or women, maybe.