A Minute With...

John Murphy, expert on presidential rhetoric

8/24/2012  8:00 am

Republicans gather on the last week of August and Democrats a week later to coronate candidates chosen months before through the primaries. Everything will be managed, and surprises are unlikely. Is there any reason to watch? Communication professor John Murphy is an expert on presidential rhetoric and has written extensively about many presidents, going back to John F. Kennedy, as well as the national political conventions. Murphy talked with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about what to look for at the events.

The campaign this summer has been less than enlightening for many voters, swamped by half-truths, mistruths and negative ads. Won’t the conventions just be more of the same?

Probably not. The conventions will certainly feature attacks, traditionally in speeches by the vice presidential candidates and the keynoters, but the presidential candidates generally take the opportunity to present a positive vision for the nation. There’s a campaign film about the presidential candidate that’s wholly positive, followed by a generally uplifting nomination acceptance address by the nominee. Parties tend to begin conventions with tough attacks and end them with inspiration.

How do organizers look at the convention schedule and the audience? What dictates the lineup and the message?

Conventions want to tell a coherent story while still touching all of the major groups that are part of a party’s constituency. For instance, the Republican message seems likely to focus on tough choices in tough times, making the argument that President Obama doesn’t understand our problems and is afraid to address them. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, famous for blunt talk, is the keynote speaker, and Republicans have claimed that Rep. Paul Ryan was chosen as the vice presidential candidate because he has taken on the tough issues in his budget. So, the story will be consistent and coherent – tough, strong Republicans – while using Christie to appeal to establishment Republicans and Ryan to whip up the base.

Given how carefully the message is managed, what should we listen for – maybe in between the lines – and what should we ignore?

We should ignore nearly everything said by media outlets covering the events. They long for the days, 60 years ago now, when conventions made decisions and therefore will try to dig beneath the surface to find the “real” story. There is no “beneath the surface” at conventions; the arguments and appeals offered by the speakers and the video presentations make up the real story. So, we need to pay attention to the stories told by the parties.

More specifically, contemporary elections tend to be won through turnout of a party’s base and persuasion of the narrow – very narrow – undecided slice of the electorate. Look for the ways in which the parties use fear appeals regarding the other side to whip up supporters and court specific, available segments of the country. I expect the Republicans to seek white, blue-collar voters with tough talk and anger, and the Democrats to seek moderate, suburban Republican women with careful reason and social issue appeals.

What do you think will be the highlights of the Republicans’ convention? What do they need to communicate with voters?

They need to show that they can manage the economy more effectively than the president. They will argue that they are stronger than the president. They will also edit history – the only past Republican president they will mention will be Ronald Reagan. It will be as if the Bushes never existed because they only remind the public of an unpleasant past. To a certain extent, the great danger facing them is that their other speakers – Christie, Ryan – will overshadow their presidential candidate. That happened to the Democrats in 1988 when Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson and Ann Richards outshone Michael Dukakis. It’s not helpful.

And for the Democrats?

They need to show how far we have come and how little sense it makes to return to the policies that created the crisis, as they will put it. They’ll highlight history – the successes of Bill Clinton, the failures of George W. Bush, the return to sanity under Barack Obama. They will morph Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan into George W. Bush and Richard Cheney. The great danger facing Democrats is the expectation that now inevitably greets a “big” Barack Obama speech; we expect great eloquence from him. That can’t always be the case; the inaugural, for instance, was only average. The incumbent party gets to go last, so they will be eager to exit the convention with a convincing lead. In our polarized electorate, it’s not likely to be large, but solid enough that the media frame becomes: What must Gov. Romney do to catch up?

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