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In The News: The Republican National Convention

by Jonathan Trichter and Susan Reefer, Aug 01, 2000
 
 

Exactly one hundred years ago, there was another Republican Convention; it too was in Philadelphia. At that time a young New York governor, Theodore Roosevelt, was nationally renowned for his leadership of the Rough Riders. At home, though, he was getting on the nerves of the Republican leadership; they felt he was not sufficiently walking the party line.

New York political bosses tried to draft Roosevelt as Vice-President in order to get rid of him; the sitting Republican President, William McKinley, didn't want Roosevelt and resented the interference.

In the end, McKinley's veto was effectively overridden by the sight of a young Teddy Roosevelt walking into the convention hall in his trademark broad-brimmed hat. It was pure political spectacle, and excitement, and anticipation, all coming together at once. The delegates went nuts, the back-room political brokering abruptly stopped. He went on to become Vice-President, and then President not long after.

This is not the kind of story that can happen in modern political conventions of either party. These days, a convention has no real conflict, not even behind the scenes. There are no real surprises. And, there isn't anything spectacular on the order of the 1900 Philadelphia convention that catapulted Roosevelt, even though the Republicans will wind up having spent something close to $50 million for the balloons and placards and the rest of the spectacle of the 2000 Philadelphia convention. Even John McCain rolling into the convention hall on his Straight Talk Express bus could not under any circumstances cause an uproarious shift in the proceedings.

The reason why the Republican convention has no conflict or surprise anymore is not because the Republican Party is made up of shiny happy people holding hands. And not because of Party discipline, or good manners, or a desire to provide the world with a united front.

The reason is that there really isn't anything to do, and nothing to fight about. The players are all in place; even the VP question was answered a week before the convention started. The few remaining social issue-type-questions have been relegated to a "Let' s Agree to Disagree" type category. So that's it. Nothing left to talk about. And that's going to be the real problem for Republican candidates across the country. Without internal struggles to decide what to stand for, political parties have no sense of identity, and very little of value to pass along to the candidates who carry their banner.

That is, after all, one of the main purposes of the convention spectacle--to provide the nation with a sense of what it means, right now, to run for office as a Republican. Or to call yourself a Republican. Or to vote Republican.

Is there a sense of political identity? The answer is, of course, yes: most Americans, even those in states with no party registration, identify themselves with one of the two major parties. But does that sense of political identity come from a pattern of voting behavior, that is, "I am a Republican because I mostly like and vote for Republicans"?

Or is it something more-"I am a Republican even though I can't stand any of the Republican candidates who have run for office in my state in the last ten years"?

Helen Fielding's new novel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, is the sequel to the best seller, Bridget Jones' Diary. In the sequel, the title character Bridget is horrified to find out her new boyfriend votes Tory. As she points out, she votes Labour, because Labour stands for "the principle of sharing...kindness, single mothers and Nelson Mandela...."

It is less clear if most Republicans or Democrats in this country could describe what it means to be a big D or R. That is less of a problem for George W. Bush and Al Gore, who have the famous names and enormous warchests to go to battle over subtleties and fine distinctions.

It is more of a problem for candidates on down the ballot. Party identity is still the best determinate of voting behavior that we have. The less well-known a candidate is, the more important that candidate's affiliation becomes. Rick Lazio, the Republican running for U.S. Senate in New York, is a perfect example. Lazio has served well but without much fanfare, as a Congressman from Long Island. As a statewide candidate, running against First Lady Hillary Clinton, he had a lot of catching up to do in the name identification department. But he started the race with the solid support of those voters who wanted to cast their lot with a Republican.

Candidates running in a state like New York have to rely even more on the party label: New York is a big, diverse, populous place, and anything that automatically connects you with a whole set of social, economic, environmental and national security issues is a welcome advantage.

Whether or not voters will be able to make that connection between Republican candidates and a zeitgeist-like set of policy positions remains to be seen. Rick Lazio, and Republicans across the country, surely hope that those tuned into the events in Philadelphia will not sum it up as just a coronation of the son of a former President.

The Democratic View

by Jon Trichter

It is true that Party identification is important to Rick Lazio, since the less well-known a candidate, the more important his affiliation, and voters have yet to learn much about Lazio other than his affiliation. It is also true that Party affiliation is the best determinate of voting behavior known to both pollsters and political scientists alike. But New York is a Democratic state. When asked, the plurality of the general electorate (about 46 percent) says they are Democrats (compared to about 34 percent Republicans).

To win, then, Rick Lazio must reach beyond the majorities who vote along Party lines. By offering his own agenda, different than that offered at his Party's convention, he could break the connection between himself and some unpopular Republican positions. Only then could he hope to steal from the Democrat's majority in New York.

So far, though, Rick Lazio has been content to run an anti-Hillary campaign, void of any agenda except that of hating Hillary. While this may be enough for a core constituency of Republicans, it's not enough to attract Democrats. Until Lazio carves out his own platform, New York Democrats -- from the top down -- will stick with Hillary. After all, Lazio is no Teddy Roosevelt.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.


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