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Putting the 2012 Republican Convention Into Historical Perspective

August 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff discuss previous conventions and presidential elections with Mark Shields, David Brooks, and presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, including what Richard Nixon said about likeability, John F. Kennedy's religion and George H.W. Bush's successful convention speech.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And we’re joined now by two NewsHour regulars and presidential historians Michael Beschloss, and Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University.  They are in Washington tonight.

Plus, of course, Mark and David are back with us as well.

Welcome to you all.

We have just been listening to Andy Kohut talk to Jeff Brown about the likability issue with Mitt Romney.  I want to ask you, Michael Beschloss, historically, is this something presidents have struggled with?  How much of a factor, how much of an issue has it been for American presidents?


I remember — in fact, as I was listening to Andy, I remember a conversation I once had with, of all people, Richard Nixon.  And he said, voters don’t vote on the basis of like/dislike.  They vote their interests.

And he was absolutely wrong, because if you look through the history of elections since the end of World War II, time after time, you see a candidate who lost the election, probably should have won, given the state of the country and the interests, but lost because they were weighed down by a high unfavorability rating.

Thomas Dewey, Al Gore, John Kerry, these are candidates who, if people liked them more, might very well have won those elections.

GWEN IFILL: And, Richard, I’m really curious about something else Andy talked.

He talked about the Mormon issue, as it’s come to be known, his religion.  Now, this takes you back to John F. Kennedy and his Catholicism.  At the time, that was a big deal and was considered to be a negative.  Do they compare?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It was a big deal.

Well, what it really tells you is, you hold a mirror up to our culture 50 years later, it’s a very different country.  And, in fact, there’s a lot of analysis from the 1960 race that suggests, in the end, it was at worst a wash.  To go back to Richard Nixon, he certainly thought that in the end it may very well have worked to Kennedy’s advantage.

There was any number of independent voters who didn’t want to be thought of as prejudiced, anti-Catholic, repeating Al Smith’s experience in 1928.  The fact that the whole Mormon issue has been such a non-issue 50 years later, I think, is a reflection on a culture that has changed profoundly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what about that? This idea of a president’s religion, a candidate’s religion — how much have the American people evolved in their own need to be comfortable with that?

DAVID BROOKS: We’re just not a denominational people anymore.

People used to make tremendous differences between Protestant Methodist, let alone or Protestant Catholic or Protestant Jew.  We’re just not like that.  There was a presidential race a couple years ago on the Democratic side where you had a whole series of candidates almost all of whom had changed denominations at one point in their lives.

So, Wes Clark has changed. I think Howard Dean switched from being Episcopal to something else because he didn’t like his church’s policy on a bike path.  So people change. And, as a result, we are religious, but not theological.

GWEN IFILL: And, Mark, can you think of a presidential candidate who has managed to calm these existential — I’m bad at those big words — fears about them, whether it’s about religion or about some other uncertainty, like this likability question we can’t get enough of?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I certainly think that John Kennedy, the Houston Baptist minister’s speech in 1960 was key to that, to confronting.  And it surprised me that Mitt Romney hasn’t done the same thing to identify the values of Mormonism, the values that he practices in community and consideration and concern for his fellow Americans with American values.

I mean, that — there’s no question that it worked for Kennedy in that election.  Richard and Michael recall this, that Norman Vincent Peale, a leading Protestant theologian and minister of the time, came out against John Kennedy because he was a Catholic.

And Adlai Stevenson responded, “I find Peale appalling and Paul appealing.”


MARK SHIELDS: So, but you don’t get the prominent figures doing that anymore.

In American politics, a presidential candidate has to have a religion, but he can’t take it too seriously. I mean, Jimmy Carter got in trouble for being considered praying five or six times a day. And Mitt Romney’s father got in trouble for going away for a period of fasting before he decided whether to run for president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, how do you see that? I mean, as somebody who’s studied so many presidents, how do you think we have changed in our relationship with our president and his faith?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think what’s happened is that, 1960, a lot of people didn’t vote for John Kennedy because he was Catholic.

All the way to 2000, Joe Lieberman was the running mate on Al Gore’s ticket. The data in retrospect found that there were very few people who voted against that ticket because the running mate was Jewish. Things changed a lot.

But I think the most important thing about religion nowadays — and I think we will probably see this in Mitt Romney’s speech tonight — is people look at it as sort of an index, something that’s going to show them what the candidate’s soul is like. It doesn’t have to — the candidate doesn’t have to have the same religion that they do, but if you’re a pious, prayerful person, it probably is reassuring to someone that the candidate is as well.

We’re all looking for clues into a candidate, especially Mitt Romney, who’s remarkably unknown here on the night he gives his acceptance speech. So this is one thing that I think he can probably use in his favor if he does it shrewdly.

GWEN IFILL: Richard, the other thing that everyone is always curious about is that he sells himself as a great businessman and that his business principles will affect his governing style. We just had that conversation.

Is there an example that you can think of where we elected a businessman president?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, Herbert Hoover was a unique figure.

He’d been, of course, the great engineer before he was the great humanitarian. And he was sold to the American people as a wunderkind and a great administrator, but basically beginning with his business skills. And that didn’t turn out terribly well.

One thing I do want to take a little bit of issue with, that’s the Nixon connection and likability, because it could be argued that…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You’re arguing that Nixon was likable?


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I would say Richard Nixon was a realist.

And he recognized he didn’t win because he was deemed more likable than Hubert Humphrey. The parallel is, it’s interesting. Andy — there’s a 16-point difference in the Romney numbers, favorable/unfavorable, likable, whatever. But no one thinks the race is 16 points.

In other words, Romney is keeping this race very close, notwithstanding the reservations that a lot of people may have about him and his likability. Why? Because in times of perceived crisis, when there is a real appetite for change — and 1968 would certainly qualify — I think there’s a lot of voters who are willing to look beyond traditional, purely personal factors, what we call the comfort level.

Forty years later, we do have the 24/7 news cycle. And presidents are with us more than they were then. But, nevertheless, I think that’s something to keep in mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, David, that has to be in part what the Romney campaign is counting on, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, one thing that has happened is many more voters are locked in than were — existed in 1960. You’re basically locked into 47 percent if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.

So we’re arguing a very small part. But I do think among that small part who are undecided or persuadable, likability really matters. When they do studies after an election and they ask voters, what position did this candidate have or that candidate, even on the basic positions of tax cuts, about a third get them wrong.

People aren’t paying attention to issues. They’re judging, what kind of person is this? And this is not a stupid way to make that kind of decision. We’re really good at evaluating confidence and trustworthiness. We do that every day. And so they’re making those decisions on a more personal basis, these few swing voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying that the campaign, they really are threading the needle here, because they have to — they have to show the likability, that he is likable, but at the same time he’s got to keep persuading people who are upset about the economy that he’s the right guy.

DAVID BROOKS: I think likability is the biggest remaining piece. And so I would say that is why it makes it so central for the speech tonight.

GWEN IFILL: If it’s true, Mark, that they’re so locked in, the voters are locked in 47/47, as David says, then what is the point of a speech like tonight? Can it really move, or is it just yet another in a series of opportunities to close that tiny little gap?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you are basically talking not to the people in the room. You are talking — and that’s why I think what we saw earlier, the Romney emphasis upon more in sorrow than anger.

You are talking to people. Basically, the people who are undecided right now, about two-thirds of them are women. And they are favorable, personally favorable to President Obama. If you — you can cut that universe down. And so you what you have to do again is not go after President Obama and say he’s a bad man or that he’s insensitive or uncaring. Acknowledge that you do like him. And I think that’s a very important part of this campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard and Michael, weigh in on this — on Romney’s task tonight. To the extent there’s just that small sliver of undecided folks out there, I mean, what does he need to do?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, this is probably what has been in the most effective speeches of modern times.

And two of the four would be — I think one of them would be George H.W. Bush in 1988. Before that convention, we were in the Reagan boom, peace and prosperity. But a lot of people felt that George Bush had sort of the soul of a vice president, couldn’t imagine him in the president’s chair, gave a great speech that dispelled a lot of those doubts.

In 1992, a lot of the polling showed that Bill Clinton going into his convention, many people felt, amazingly enough, that this was someone who came from a privileged background, probably because he went to elite universities. He used that speech to spell out what a tough life he had had, and how he had been able to climb to point of being the nominee for the presidency of that party.

It’s not the only reason he got an enormous bounce, but that speech really helped.

GWEN IFILL: So, Michael — not Michael — but, Richard, based on what Michael just said about what — these examples where we know the speech has actually given people a bounce, do you anticipate that Mitt Romney can make that work for him? This is based on what you know about whether people like Mitt Romney, actually having done this in the past.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: They have done it in the past.

But I think, first of all, we want to be very careful and not overanalyze one speech. It is unique. It’s a unique moment. It’s the last chance that he has in an unfiltered way to deliver his message on his terms to an audience that is likely to be larger than anything he has until Election Day.

The debates of course will have their own dynamic. On the other hand, history suggests that these speeches have a rather short shelf life. And we will leave it at that.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, does that mean we’re spending way too much time talking about the speech?




GWEN IFILL: Well, we were talking earlier, last night, about Paul Ryan and whether we really remembered, Mark, any other vice presidential speech.

MARK SHIELDS: The only vice presidential speech that I think anybody remembers, perhaps, Hubert Humphrey’s in 1964, when he did a recitation, a litany of not Senator Goldwater, not Senator — and just talked about legislation that both Republicans and Democrats supported and he had not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You remember it.


MARK SHIELDS: I remember it. I remember it vividly.

GWEN IFILL: I would vote for Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin as being pretty memorable vice presidential speeches.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, certainly Sarah Palin’s was. You’re right. And Geraldine Ferraro’s was a great symbolic moment, certainly.


Thank you, David.

Thank you, Mark.

And thank you, Michael and Richard, back in Washington.