Watching the Conventions

I just wanted to talk a little about the impossibility of getting a sense of the conventions.

What I did was: opening a tab to CSPAN when they gaveled the things in each day, so I was basically listening to it for the first couple of hours…then I would switch over to TV, but still with CSPAN, taking a short break for dinner (on the Tuesdays and Thursdays) and a longer one for my pickup basketball game (on both Wednesdays). Every once in a while I’d flip around to see what the cable nets were showing, but mostly I just stuck to CSPAN. But not just CSPAN: I also had my twitter feed open throughout, so I was seeing what various reporters and pundits were saying, too.

But of course that’s not how very many people at all experience the conventions.

A lot of reporters — a whole lot of them — were in the convention cities themselves. Those reporters were, mostly talking to people and looking for people to talk to. They weren’t watching very many of the speeches, except for the headliners (presumably). Their convention was very different from anyone else’s.

Then there’s the typical high-interest voter — not insane, top 1% interest, but normal high-interest. She’s turning on one of the cable nets when she gets home from work…well, except for dinner, and dealing with the kids and the household. Eventually, however, she’ll turn on MSNBC if she’s a Democrat, or Fox if she’s a Republican. And then get distracted by the kids or household stuff or a call from her mom or her husband needing to discuss something, and so she’ll have seen ten minutes of pundits pontificating and maybe five of a speech. If she’s lucky, she’ll wind up seeing maybe one and a half of the big speeches — most of he party’s nominee and good-sized chunks, say, of Clinton and Michelle Obama. She might download one of the speeches later that she missed, if she’s really into it. That’s our high-interest voter.

Low interest voters? They’ll notice that it’s convention week at some point, probably if they happen to be looking for something to watch during the broadcast hour. They’ll hear a few sound bites on the radio news in the car, see some headlines when there’s a TV set to Fox News at the gym or a restaurant, get some clip forwarded to them. If they turn on a morning show on the TV in the background while they get ready for work, they’ll half-hear an interview with convention speakers; if they watch Leno or Conan, they’ll hear an uptick in campaign jokes.

The problem is: how can you simultaneously get a sense of all of this? Well, you really can’t. Just can’t. And that’s before trying to sort out exactly who all those voters are, and what they make of the various things that are being thrown at them…which depends on what’s in their own heads. Which in turn is not only very different from the typical person commenting on the convention, but is very different across all those voters, even if we’re most interested in the swing voters.

For the effects of the convention, there’s really no substitute, that is, for waiting for the polls.

So in the meantime, what one can do is pick a slice of it and assess it for what it is. For me, this time around, it was the convention from the podium. Not from the broadcast anchor booth, or the cable nets, or how delegates experience it, but just from the podium. And I’ve tried, for the last couple of weeks, to be as careful as possible not to imply anything more than is appropriate from the vantage point that I’m using.

But I’m not confident I’ve stuck to that; it’s actually very difficult to do. And so this post, as a reminder of just how limited any one perspective is on these events.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.