Obama’s Mass Addresses Are Great Theater, So-So Politics

Shortly after ten o’clock on the night of Thursday, August 28, tens of millions of Americans will be seated in front of their television screens, victims of the broadcast networks’ blanket coverage of the final hour of the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

And the Obama campaign, which has moved that evening’s proceedings from a cozy N.B.A. arena to a giant N.F.L. stadium, thinks it knows how every broadcast outlet will cover the ten o’clock hour: overhead shorts of the jam-packed, 80,000-seat venue, perhaps a clip or two of John F. Kennedy (who accepted his party’s 1960 nomination at the massive Los Angeles Coliseum), and numerous references to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which just so happens to have been delivered on another August 28, back in 1963.

Then, if all goes well, somewhere around 10:15, grainy footage of Dr. King speaking to 250,000 people on the Mall in Washington will dissolve seamlessly into a live shot of Mr. Obama – the first black candidate ever nominated for the presidency by a major party – making his way to midfield at Invesco Field, where he’ll spend the next 45 minutes or so mesmerizing the crowd with his soaring oratory. To the masses in Living Room America, the pictures and sounds on television will be contagious – how could any swing voter not want to follow such an inspirational man and be a part of such a historic movement?

That’s the idea, anyway. Certainly, the Obama campaign is on safe ground if it’s assuming that the networks will play up the Kennedy and King comparisons as a prelude to Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech. But the effect of all of this on mass opinion may not be nearly as decisive as the Obama braintrust hopes for.

While Mr. Obama has stirred profound passion and devotion among his supporters, there isn’t any evidence – yet – that the compelling sounds and images produced when he addresses his flock prompt more ambivalent voters to give in to their emotions and jump on the bandwagon.

The best example of this came in the run-up the New Hampshire primary earlier this year.

On the Thursday night before the primary, Mr. Obama handily defeated Mrs. Clinton in the lead-off Iowa caucuses, instantly giving his campaign – which has been trailing in New Hampshire polls – the glow of a winner. In defeat that night, Mrs. Clinton listlessly addressed a small crowd in Iowa, surrounded on stage by a collection of anonymous politicians and her husband’s former appointees. The pictures and words communicated to television viewers exactly what Iowa’s results did: loser.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, triumphantly addressed a sea of supporters, speaking in sweeping terms about his candidacy’s historic potential. And the stagecraft was perfect: No political hacks in sight, just jubilant young supporters – the future! – cheering (at a safe distance) behind the candidate. This was the scene that millions of Americans witnessed on the small screen.

And it only got better for Mr. Obama the following night, when he addressed a traditional pre-primary dinner in New Hampshire. As he was called to the stage, his supporters rushed forward, as if a prophet were arriving, and had to be warned back – repeatedly – by the public address announcer. Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, was lustily booed. Television newscasts took note of the devastating contrast, playing clips of both candidates’ speeches over and over – the perfect visual explanation for the post-Iowa New Hampshire polls that showed Mr. Obama suddenly in command. Mr. Obama’s moment, television was telling New Hampshire and America, had arrived.

And then Mrs. Clinton, apropos of just about nothing, won the primary. Mr. Obama and his supporters had created some of the most powerful and arresting television imaginable, but it didn’t matter.

The same basic phenomenon has played out repeatedly since then. Mr. Obama’s campaign has featured Reagan-like stagecraft that has made his opponents look like midgets, producing an effect that prompted Chris Matthews, in a moment that will haunt him to his grave, to talk of a certain “thrill going up [his] leg.” But it never seems to move his polls numbers.

On the night that he clinched the Democratic nomination, he spoke from a basketball arena in Minneapolis – the same venue where the Republican convention will be held in August – and again the pictures and sounds were priceless. The Democratic race was at last over; what better way for Mr. Obama to reintroduce himself to the broader general election audience? And yet in the days that followed, there really was no bounce.

It was the same story last week, when Mr. Obama thrilled 200,000 awestruck Germans in Berlin, part of his exhaustively chronicled overseas excursion. There seems to have been a temporary bump in his numbers that – like that his fleeting pre-primary lead in New Hampshire – is already receding.

There’s little doubt that Mr. Obama will look and sound on August 28 like a man with an appointment with history. And the show, for his supporters, will be awesome to behold. But there’s much doubt whether this will matter at all to the voters who will actually decide this election.

Obama’s Mass Addresses Are Great Theater, So-So Politics