Commentary: Grading the Major Party Conventions

Aug 9, 2016

How did the parties do at the conventions?  Using the late journalist David Broder’s guide here’s how I think they did:

Did they manage convention business well, showing they could manage the country’s affairs well?  The GOP convention was a bit of a mess but a lot of the mess was off-camera.  Democrats did better but not great.  Republicans C, Democrats B.

Did they present a clear, memorable theme?  Trump’s dark law and order speech certainly did that.  Democratic speakers itemized most of the usual Democratic themes, with Clinton doing so professionally but neither succinctly nor memorably.  Republicans B-plus, Democrats C-plus.

Was the party unified because of and after the convention?  All the boycotts by GOP party leaders and luminaries were unprecedented.  Most of the delegates were behind Trump but party unity was not, and is not, a goal of Trump.  Some of Sanders’ followers kept up their opposition to Clinton, so the Democrats appeared unified only in comparison to Republicans, but you don’t get to curve grades here.  Republicans D-minus, Democrats C.

Did they spotlight luminaries and especially future party leaders?  This was not a goal at the Republican convention.  Trump put the spotlight mostly on his family.  And again, luminaries who could have given speeches stayed away.  Democrats did better but they don’t have anyone like Obama in 2004, a symptom of their larger problem with a threadbare farm system.  Republicans D, Democrats B-minus.

Did they expand their coalition beyond their base to maximize their electoral chances in November?  I gave both of them an incomplete grade.  We know that the GOP is in terrible shape with non-whites and females and Clinton is in good shape with women but the wild card is white males who have voted Democratic in the past but who, today at least, form a key part of Trump’s base.  Will they stay with him through thick and thin?  Or will they defect?  Or will they just stay home? 

So the final composite grade for the conventions is a D+ for Republicans and a C+ for Democrats.  Go ahead and complain about my being a tough grader.  My students do it all the time.

Clinton emerged from her convention with a healthy nine point lead in the polls.  But in 2016 this may not matter.  We have seen too many astonishing twists and turns in the campaign and conventional benchmarks may not be helpful. 

Missouri’s primary last week is another sign of the unpredictability.  Eric Greitens romped over three very strong but conventional candidates to win the GOP nomination for governor.  His November opponent, attorney general Chris Koster, has a strong pedigree that may not count for much in a race where the usual rules may not apply.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College, and a regular commentator for KBIA’s Talking Politics