August 31, 2012

Associate Professor of Political Science Scott Meinke

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Interviewed by Andy Hirsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science, discusses what Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney achieved with his convention speech, and what to expect next in the race for the White House.

Question: What did Mitt Romney accomplish with his speech Thursday at the Republican National Convention?

Answer: The task for Mitt Romney last night was to make a case against President Obama's re-election to the small slice of the electorate that is undecided. Much of the electorate, and certainly everyone in the convention hall, is already firmly committed. The nominee's acceptance speech needs to send a message to uncommitted voters, and it needs to be a message that is clear enough to be transmitted in media coverage of the convention since many of those voters were not watching it live.

Based on that standard, I think he did fairly well. After some less-focused biographical material at the beginning, Romney made a strong appeal to what political scientists call "retrospective voting." He essentially asked undecided voters to consider whether they are better off than they were four years ago. The Romney speech put a memorable spin on that familiar theme in several places, particularly when he said, "You know there's something wrong with the job he's (Obama) done as president when the best feeling you had is the day you voted for him."

The speech then pivoted from the case for firing Obama to the case for hiring Romney, and Romney made the claim that his business experience made him uniquely suited to do what Obama has not. I didn't think the speech was as strong in backing up that claim. Romney offered a five-point plan for job creation, but the five points were fairly general and familiar Republican positions rather than a focused short-term plan for a quick turnaround. Although more policy specifics would have strengthened Romney's case, I think that the "retrospective" argument is the most important piece for his campaign, and the one that may well resonate with undecided voters.

Q: One line in Romney's speech that is getting a lot of attention is, "I wish that Obama had succeeded." What did you make of that?

A: Romney's speech seemed to go out of the way to appeal to voters who don't have an intense partisan disdain for Obama. There were a few partisan appeals, such as the mention of Obama "apologizing" for America, but most of the speech seemed to talk to voters who may have supported Obama and who recall the enthusiasm of 2008. Romney glossed over his party's immediate and very intense opposition to Obama, but he was obviously addressing those voters who did not share that opposition.

Q: Some have criticized Romney for not being able to connect with voters on a personal level. In his convention speech, Romney shared some anecdotes about his family and personal life, stories we haven't heard before. How important is it for Romney to make that connection with voters? 

A: I think it's easy to place too much emphasis on likeability with presidential candidates. I suspect that few voters would choose to support Obama simply because they relate to him better than Romney. Partisanship and evaluations of the incumbent party's performance are far more important. To the extent that Romney's personal characteristics matter to some voters, the last night of the convention did offer a positive introduction to the candidate as an individual. The biographical film on Romney (a standard convention item) was one of the best I can recall, and the personal elements Romney offered in the speech built on the film and the evening's earlier speakers. Still, making a case against Obama was far more important for Romney than showing that he could relate to average Americans.

Q: What should we expect the impact of the Republican convention to be on the trajectory of the campaign?

A: The conventions aren't likely to be game-changers, but they do provide a block of mostly positive media coverage for the candidate at a time when many voters are just beginning to pay attention. This coverage could help bring wavering partisans home to their party and to focus the choice for the undecided. Some political science research has looked at the convention polling "bounce" effect, arguing that candidates get a strong bounce when they are under-rated in the polls relative to what the fundamentals of the race would predict. One analysis of the current race uses this trend to predict that Romney's bounce will be small but somewhat larger than Obama's. If that is the case, the Republican and Democratic conventions will leave this race even closer than it already is.

Read Ask the Experts: Analyzing Obama's Speech

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