Obama's Mile High Convention Speech: Just Remember New Hampshire

This is not the worst way to change the subject. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that preparations for August’s Democratic convention have been “marred by costly setbacks and embarrassing delays” and that organizers might be forced to scale back their plans. But this morning, all anyone is talking about is Barack Obama’s decision to deliver an open-air acceptance speech in front of more than 75,000 partisans.

The timing is probably (mostly) a coincidence. There had been speculation for some time that Obama might forsake Denver’s Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets and Avalanche play, for Invesco Field at Mile High, the much larger home of the NFL’s Broncos, and even if the D.N.C.’s convention preparations were going swimmingly, this move would still make sense.

No one in politics can attract a crowd like Obama, as we previously learned in South Carolina, Oregon and even at the site of the G.O.P. convention in Minneapolis. There’s no better way for the Obama campaign to convey the unique and powerful appeal of their candidate than by filling a football stadium for a nationally-televised speech. Plus, the broadcast networks will on the night of the speech be unable to resist visual comparisons between the scene in Denver and the one on the mall in Washington D.C. exactly 45 years earlier. The only downside for Obama is the threat of bad weather.

How can John McCain, who will accept his own party’s nomination seven nights later, possibly follow this act? Well, he can’t.

Even if McCain wanted to match Obama’s choice of venue, he couldn’t: Minnesota’s last large open-air venue, Metropolitan Stadium, closed in 1981 and was demolished in 1985, only to be transformed a decade later into the famous Mall of America. The only Invesco-like venue in the state is the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where the Twins, Vikings and the University of Minnesota’s football team play. But this is beside the point: McCain can’t attract the masses to rallies like Obama can, and even if he could, it’s doubtful that his performance would rise to the occasion. The football stadium rally is an Obama calling card. McCain would only look like a feeble imitator if he tried to hold one of his own.

So McCain will be stuck delivering his speech in a basketball arena, in front of the usual collection of 18,000 or so party activists, office-holders and fund-raisers, and his energy – and the crowd’s – will almost certainly compare unfavorably to the show in Denver.

But this might not hurt him. Remember that during the primaries, Obama’s the size and passion of Obama’s rallies often created misleading perceptions. The most memorable example of this came the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, when Obama – fresh off his resounding Iowa triumph – seemed to have all the momentum in the world behind him. His poll numbers were rising and Hillary Clinton’s were crashing. At a New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner three nights before the primary, Clinton was lustily booed, but when Obama took to the podium, his frenzied supporters rushed toward the stage while the public address announcer pleaded with them to calm down. The media played it all up as a vivid illustration of Obama’s ascendance and Clinton’s demise. Then Clinton won the primary.

The lesson: Just because something looks like a mass movement on television doesn’t mean voters will automatically get swept up in it. Obama's Mile High Convention Speech: Just Remember New Hampshire