Democratic Conventions, From Bouncy to Flat

Ideally, a political convention serves to introduce or reintroduce the public to a party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees in a way that produces a meaningful “bounce” in the polls. It doesn’t always work. Here’s a brief summary of the Democratic nominations of the modern era, ranked (from best to worst) in terms of how effective they were in positioning the party for victory in the fall.


1992: It’s unlikely that any future convention for either party will ever be as successful as the Democrats’ 1992 gathering. Bill Clinton came to New York a battered presumptive nominee, lucky to be running ahead of Ross Perot (but still well behind George H. W. Bush) in most polls. He left ahead by 30 points. Some luck was involved: On the eve of Mr. Clinton’s acceptance speech, Mr. Perot abruptly withdrew from the race, presenting a golden opportunity for Mr. Clinton to reintroduce himself to the restless masses who had flocked to the diminutive Texan. Over four nights, speaker after speaker hammered away relentlessly at the theme of change. Mr. Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, presented themselves as the moderate and pragmatic faces of a new generation of leaders after 12 years of Republican White House control. Not a single poll after the ’92 convention—even during the G.O.P.’s convention a month later—ever showed Clinton trailing, and he went on to defeat Bush by six points.


1976: Another New York gala, the ’76 convention that nominated Jimmy Carter, helped erase the public’s memories of the two conventions that preceded it, both of which were marked by ugliness in and out of the hall. Mr. Carter’s campaign was rooted in his call for a new, more inclusive and more unifying type of politics, and in the wake of 1968 and 1972, his orderly and on-message convention—highlighted by an inspiring keynote address by Barbara Jordan—suggested to many Americans that he had succeeded in reforming the Democratic Party. Mr. Carter left New York with a monster advantage over Gerald Ford, although it was somewhat inflated since Ford and Ronald Reagan were still locked in a contentious battle for the Republican nomination. Ford steadily closed the gap in the fall and nearly beat Mr. Carter. The goodwill generated from the ’76 convention may have saved Mr. Carter from defeat.


1988: It’s hard to believe that ’88 would rank so high, given the sweeping rout that Michael Dukakis suffered in November (53 percent to 45 percent, or 426 to 112 in electoral votes) at the hands of George H. W. Bush. But the Atlanta convention was, at least at the time, a triumph. All spring, Mr. Dukakis had slowly built a lead over Mr. Bush, who was still plagued by “the wimp factor” and had yet to develop a fall campaign theme. At the July convention, Mr. Bush was memorably lampooned by several prime-time speakers, perhaps most famously by Ann Richards (“Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth”) and Ted Kennedy (“Where was George?”). When his turn came, Mr. Dukakis, never known as much of an orator, delivered perhaps the strongest and most personal speech of his life, memorably declaring that the campaign was about competence, not ideology. When it was over, the Massachusetts Democrats commanded a 17-point advantage over Mr. Bush. From there it was all downhill.


1996: There’s not much to say about this one, and that’s sort of the point. The Democrats gathered in Chicago virtually assured of holding onto the White House in the fall. The Republicans had already held their convention, and even the bounce from that hadn’t been enough to give Bob Dole the lead over Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton merely needed to present a harmonious and uneventful show to the public. His only threat was discontent from the left, which was irate at his recent decision to sign welfare reform. The Clinton campaign responded by essentially handing over one night of the proceedings to the party’s most liberal voices, like Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo, as a peace offering. It seemed to work. Not even a scandal involving Dick Morris and a prostitute, which broke in the middle of the convention, could spoil the mood. Mr. Clinton delivered a well-received (if little-remembered) acceptance speech that played heavily on the “bridge to the 21st century” theme that had been hastily constructed in response to the 73-year-old Dole’s ill-advised promise to serve as a bridge to a bygone era. His lead bounced back to about 20 points afterward and he cruised to an eight-point November triumph.


2000: More than any other, the legacy of this convention remains a matter of fierce debate. Al Gore’s ultimate failure in the 2000 election is popularly attributed to the populist “people, not the powerful” theme that he pushed in his acceptance speech in Los Angeles. To many observers, it seemed like an absurd effort by Mr. Gore to distance himself from Mr. Clinton, whose presidency had been marked by mostly moderate, business-friendly policies. Still, it is undeniable that the ’00 convention reinvigorated, at least temporarily, the Gore campaign when it most needed it. He had trailed George W. Bush throughout the spring, and Mr. Bush had opened a double-digit lead after his early August convention. But after the Democratic convention, Mr. Gore—and his running mate, Joe Lieberman—stormed into the lead, which he didn’t relinquish until his disastrous debate performances. In that sense, the 2000 convention, no matter how puzzling Mr. Gore’s message seemed, was a success.


1984: The San Francisco convention marked the highest point of one of the lowest years ever for Democrats. Walter Mondale’s bid to unseat Ronald Reagan was a long shot from the start, and the draining and deeply divisive battle between him and Gary Hart for the Democratic nomination—which wasn’t officially resolved until the mid-July convention—all but eliminated whatever plausible fall victory scenario Mr. Mondale ever had. Still, the convention itself was, relatively speaking, a success, and actually produced two of the most memorable convention speeches in history—from keynoter Mario Cuomo and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Tens of millions of Americans also watched on the third night as Geraldine Ferraro officially accepted a place in history as the first (and still only) woman ever nominated for national office by a major party. Mr. Mondale’s speech itself was competent, if hardly overwhelming. History remembers it as a disaster because he announced that he’d raise taxes as president, but the immediate verdict wasn’t quite as damning. He left San Francisco two points behind Reagan—by far the high-water mark for a candidate who would finish with just 40 percent of the vote and 13 electoral votes.


1980: Yet another New York convention, this one is justly recalled as a debacle, and for one reason: It ended with Ted Kennedy, whose primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter had stalled early but caught fire toward the end, reigniting the passions of his supporters by delivering the best speech of his career and then refusing to raise his arm with the victorious Carter in a show of unity. The scene of Mr. Kennedy snubbing Mr. Carter spoke volumes about the state of the Democratic Party in 1980 and the willingness of some of the party’s traditional constituencies—who had rallied around Mr. Kennedy—to bail on their nominee in the fall. Mr. Carter did draw even with Republican Ronald Reagan after the New York convention, but that had mostly to do with voters’ fears about Reagan. The convention reinforced Mr. Carter’s image as a leader who had lost the power to lead, which made Reagan’s surge at the tail end of the campaign almost inevitable.


1972: A strong case can be made that the Miami Beach convention that nominated George McGovern was the worst of the modern era for the Democrats. Along with this year’s race, it marked one of only two times since 1968 that the “reform” candidate wrested the nomination from the establishment’s choice. For Mr. McGovern to complete this accomplishment in ’72 required him and his supporters to withstand a flurry of procedural challenges on the convention floor, which ultimately forced Mr. McGovern to deliver his acceptance speech well past midnight, ruining perhaps his best chance for earning reconsideration from the tens of millions of general-election voters who dismissed him as out of the mainstream.


1968: The 1968 convention gets the nod over ’72 as the least successful one for this reason: Unlike ’72, the ’68 election was winnable for the Democrats, and the show they put on in Chicago—protesters violently clashing with police on the streets and Mayor Richard Daley shouting expletives while Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff decried the “Gestapo tactics” of the mayor’s police force—may have been the single biggest factor in their defeat. In November, Hubert Humphrey finished just 500,000 popular votes behind Richard Nixon, who won a slim Electoral College majority (301 electoral votes). How many swing voters ultimately sided with Nixon and his “law and order” in part because of the images they saw from Chicago that summer? Enough to call ’68 the lowest moment in the modern history of the Democratic convention.

Democratic Conventions, From Bouncy to Flat