|HOW DID IT PLAY?|
August 4, 2000
Media Correspondent Terence Smith talks with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, David Gergen, Frank Luntz and Clarence Page about media coverage of the Republican convention.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
RAY SUAREZ: The Republican National Convention as political theater and as television spectacle. How well did it work for the GOP? And to media correspondent Terence Smith.
SMITH: So how did it play? We'll talk about the convention's message
and how it was conveyed with three observers who were in Philadelphia.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication
at the University of Pennsylvania; Clarence Page, NewsHour essayist
and a Chicago Tribune columnist; Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster
who monitored a focus group of swing voters for MSNBC during the convention
and David Gergen, editor at large at U.S. News & World Report,
who is also a professor of public service at the Harvard University's
Kennedy School of Government.
FRANK LUNTZ: Well, any time you spend four hours a night with 36 people over five nights, you really get to know them quite well. (Laughter) These were people who walked in, and they were Clinton voters in 1996. They leaned every so slightly towards George Bush. We wanted to understand what made them tick, what would move them. Several key findings: Number one, Bush scored very highly on education and Social Security, traditional Democratic issues. Number two, anyone who issues an attack, even a seeming attack, is going to be criticized. We're into this politics of pleasantry in America today, and they want to keep their politicians on the up and up. Number three, you've got to be sincere. One of the low points of the entire four days was when John McCain, who otherwise delivered a great speech, spoke about how proud he was of George Bush. He could have used a lot of other adjectives. Pride was not one that these people responded to. And number four, after seeing all of this, all four nights and the key speeches, George Bush had one heck of a bounce. This really was a home run for him.
|Conveying their message|
TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, does that sound like the convention you attended?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, after 16 hours of exposure, Frank has the most atypical group of voters in the country. Indeed, they saw more of the convention than any reporter, pundit, or academic probably did, and swing voters, after all, are called swing voters for a reason. This is what you expect when people who are undecided are exposed to large amounts of communication on one side. I wouldn't read too much into it. I think what was important about the convention was that four major issues emerged: Military preparedness and tax cuts, traditionally Republican issues, on which there are serious issue distinctions with the Democrats. Education and Social Security, also serious distinctions. And two issues that weren't focused on also have distinctions, abortion rights -- big difference between the two parties here, mentioned primarily in the prayers that introduced and closed the conventions; and guns and gun control, also largely unmentioned except in some of the roll call of the states. So four issues that are clearly going to be contested, two issues that are at play but haven't been addressed much by the Republicans, but they are also issues. Those, by the way, were not largely the focus of today's press coverage, and there's more total exposure to press coverage than to the convention, which means that some of those scenes got dampened down today instead of reinforced. That's too bad.
TERENCE SMITH: Clarence Page, from your perspective watching it, do you think the Republicans successfully conveyed the message they wanted to send?
CLARENCE PAGE: I think they did. I would put everything onto those two big speeches at the end, Cheney's speech and Bush's speech. Everything else was pageantry leading up to it, all warm, in fact. And Kathleen is of course correct that few people were watching relative to other years, but somebody's watching and somebody's going to be voting. So among those who did watch, I think the party accomplished what they wanted to. They brought Cheney out in the traditional attack dog role, which he played and helped to solidify the Republican base and give those delegates something to take back home with them, some red meat, if you will. We've used that corny phrase now. But Bush came out as the good cop and conveyed this compassionate conservative slogan, but put some meat on the bones now. For months people have been asking, "well, what does that mean?" It's a great oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp. Now he was showing what it means. It means you take a liberal agenda that Bobby Kennedy would have been comfortable with, and attach conservative remedies to it. And this is something that... you know, Jack Kemp called it bleeding heart conservatism -- could hardly get a hearing under the elder Bush's White House. But now, in this current climate, where George W. is trying to reach out, and that, I think is going to play very well.
TERENCE SMITH: David Gergen, do you get a picture of the strategy or of the campaign from the convention?
DAVID GERGEN: I think you do. And I must say, I emerged from this closer to the Frank Luntz' view of what happened in this convention. If this convention did not win the election for George Bush, I believe it came very close. I think Al Gore now has his work cut out for him to catch up. And as you look back at the convention, it was orchestrated in a way that I don't think many of us fully understood in the beginning. The first two nights were very warm and fuzzy, very soft. Somebody called it the vegetarian convention, because there was no red meat anywhere. (Laughter) And then the third night you had Cheney who came in to energize the base, and perhaps turned off some of the moderate or independent voters. But the fourth night, it seems to me what happened was that Bush was able very successfully to draw upon those warm feelings, the inclusiveness, the number of blacks and minorities on stage, and then as Clarence said, add substance to that. And it really helped to set... those first two nights helped to set him up, and he gave credibility to the message. And what we're seeing in the polls -- there are a number of polls floating around, and we really won't know where the poll numbers are probably until about Sunday when it settles back down again -- but the early indications are that he got much more of a bounce than anybody expected, and he could be up as much as 15 to 18 points ahead.
TERENCE SMITH: Which would be remarkable.
DAVID GERGEN: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Frank, what was the reaction of the people that you had captive there to the question of whether or not George W. Bush is "presidential"?
FRANK LUNTZ: There was no doubt. I mean, when they walked in... I'll agree with Kathleen on one point. Only one of the 36 people said they would actually have watched this if they weren't gathered into a room to watch it. So these swing voters really don't care much about it. But that being said, that public yawning became a public yearning after the Dick Cheney speech because Cheney at least grabbed their attention. Then they go to George Bush. They wanted answers from him on education, Social Security, Medicare, and particularly prescription drugs, and they got those answers. Now, we might say as pundits that while he wasn't specific enough, but part of the NBC coverage was to put a focus on people, rather than punditry, and those viewers there felt they got what they were looking for.
|Conventions as a marker|
| TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen, do you get a picture
of the campaign that's coming up?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: One of the important functions of a convention is to introduce the candidates to the electorate. And to the extent that we don't simply vote on issues, we also vote on our sense of these candidates, their trustworthiness, their integrity, whether or not they have the stature to assume the office. I think that there's great benefit here to the Republicans because I think that both Cheney and Bush accomplished that and accomplished that well. And I think you see it also in the sound bites that are being lifted from their speeches. I think that we need to be cautious and evaluating the effect of the convention until the effect of second- and third- day news coverage settles in and word of mouth settles in as well. There's a very interesting phenomenon at play in conventions. The American people use them in part as a marker that says that it's now time to be more serious about the election and to begin evaluating one's position. By the end of most second party conventions, most voters' opinions have locked in to the extent that we can begin to see a coherent electorate. It's not really there yet, but it's forming, and that's a very important function. And I think we're going to see that by the end of the Democratic Convention, the people who have dispositions now have a little bit more firmly anchored on each side and part of function of the fact that there's simply a signal here that it's time to do that.
TERENCE SMITH: Clarence Page, what do you think Democrats have to do to arrest the process that David Gergen is talking about?
CLARENCE PAGE: Well, my memo to Al Gore would say that, "Okay. Declare a victory of sorts, because George W. Bush has bought Clintonism, if not Clinton." In other words, Bill Clinton in 1992 did exactly this in reverse. He got his Democrats together. They wanted to win, and therefore the factionalism kind of faded while he worked on outreach to moderate voters. George W. is doing the same thing in the other direction now. And so the question is not what do we want too, it's how do we want to do it? Al Gore now has to talk about the danger of vouchers from his point of view. He has to talk about the dangers of what he calls "risky schemes" involving Social Security, although, he's got to watch using that term now, because George w. made such...
TERENCE SMITH: Made such fun of it.
CLARENCE PAGE: Made such fun of it, and did a pretty good job of that. But also, the attacks, I think, once his group certainly shows us that attack ads, attack politics have got to be use carefully this time around. Voters seem to be reacting to that more negatively than before. But I still expect to see a nasty campaign, Terry. I think it's going to get down some ads and some third-party ads, et cetera, that are going to get pretty vicious.
|Polishing off the campaign|
TERENCE SMITH: David Gergen, I want to make sure that I heard you right, that on August 4th of the year 2000, you're sitting here saying you're all but giving it to George W. Bush?
DAVID GERGEN: I think he has the commanding heights in this election right now. I don't think it's over. I think that the Democrats are in a hole, and they've... I think Kathleen Hall Jamieson is absolutely right. The Democrats can't afford to let opinion now crystallize in the way it has over the last 24 hours, as it's started to move towards Bush. They've got to come back very swiftly. I think Al Gore now is doing precisely the right thing by going forward with his vice presidential nominee very quickly. But he's got to use his Democratic convention to get at least the bounce that George W. Bush did. He needs to be within five points or so, five or six points going into Labor Day, or it's going to be a very tough election. How does he do that? That's the hard question. What does he do during that convention?
FRANKL LUNTZ: He's never been a good finesse politician. I mean, one of the things we found here is that that Reagan language of the 1980's, where you tell the Reader's Digest stories, 30 seconds of families that overcame some sort of tragedy, every time one of those stories were told by anyone there, it was negative. But the moment they got to the substance, they got a positive reaction. Lynn Cheney, speaking about her husband loving fly fishing-- who hates fly fishing? Well, apparently our swing voters do, because they reacted so negatively.
TERENCE SMITH: They're all Philadelphians, though, aren't they? (Laughter)
FRANKL LUNTZ: They just hate flies. And yet, every time that Bush spoke about what shod have been a Democratic issue -- Social Security, education, Medicare, prescription drugs -- every time, it went through the roof. And then when they were done, we had even African American Democrats -- longtime Democrats -- saying, "this is a guy I can vote for. He's presidential, he knows what he's doing, he's got..." They didn't speak of character or personality. They spoke of issues and of vision.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me cover one thing I think it's really important now for the Democrats to do. They cannot let the Republicans get away with the argument, which essentially Bush got away with last night: "Well, we've had all this economic progress, well, it's really a piffle, it doesn't mean very much because we're not trying to do anything with it." They've got come back and say, "this was hard work. We have come a long way in the 1990's." Let's go back to what it was at the beginning of the 1990's and walk us through the economic changes and the changes in social indicators. That's really critical, and then they can go on the attack and point out the differences. If they concede that argument, about the economic gains, it's over.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. I'm sorry to say that we have to leave it there. Kathleen, all of you, thanks very much.
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