By BETH FOUHY, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Patriotic music? Check. Balloon drop? Check. Sign-waving delegates? Check. Viewer interest in this summer's Republican and Democratic national conventions? Still unclear.
With the parties' quadrennial presidential nominating gatherings fast approaching, organizers on both sides are bedeviled by a similar challenge: how to raise TV viewer interest in the multiday affairs, which threaten to be largely predictable spectacles nearly devoid of suspense.
The conventions were a ratings hit in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama became the first black presidential nominee for a major party and Sarah Palin made her national debut as Republican John McCain's running mate. This year's gatherings promise fewer gee-whiz moments, with both party's nominees long settled and polls showing public confidence in politics and government at a record low.
Republicans are set to meet for four days in Tampa, Fla., beginning Monday to confer their party's nomination on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Despite all the detailed planning, there could be a surprise twist: Weather forecasters say Tropical Storm Isaac poses a possible threat to Florida as the GOP gathers there.
The Democrats will convene Sept. 3-6 in Charlotte, N.C., in hopes of giving Obama another term. After a Labor Day celebration that Monday, the convention will begin officially Tuesday.
Party activists and political junkies are the built-in audience for both conventions, which typically receive wall-to-wall airtime on cable news stations and about an hour of prime time each night on the broadcast networks. But reaching viewers who are less politically attuned — while, more importantly, influencing how they vote in the presidential contest — presents both a puzzle and an opportunity for organizers.
"Conventions are the first time many voters pay attention, so they play a useful role in getting people thinking about the general election," said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University and a scholar of party conventions. "They offer the opportunity to present the nominees in the most human and likable format possible. It's a unique opportunity for the parties to do that before a national audience."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said his city was preparing for an event that would bring unprecedented attention.
"We're a city that has hosted four Super Bowls, but hosting a major international political event is the biggest thing we've ever undertaken by a long stretch," Buckhorn said in an interview.
Recent conventions have had their share of memorable moments, from Palin's red-meat speech in 2008 to Obama's similarly star-making appearance at the Democratic conclave in 2004. The 2000 Democratic nominee, Al Gore, gave audiences an eyeful when he grabbed his wife, Tipper, for a lengthy kiss on the convention stage.
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will enjoy his widest national exposure yet in Tampa. But it's still a far cry from the suspense generated at conventions in the past, where parties actually selected their nominees.
For that kind of drama, you have to go back to 1980, when President Jimmy Carter fought back a serious challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at the Democratic convention in New York. Kennedy pressed for a vote releasing delegates from their commitment to Carter — a nail-biting exercise that played out on national TV.
These days, lacking that element of surprise, the parties use their conventions primarily to frame their nominees in a positive light and establish a deeper connection with voters.
"You can create spectacle with fireworks, sets or fancy music. But what you hope viewers take away is emotion," said Don Mischer, who produced the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. "Emotion is what grabs people and makes it memorable. It also keeps them from flipping away."
In Tampa and Charlotte this year, organizers promise their conventions will offer both compelling pictures and a sophisticated interactive experience suited for the social media age. They're also trading jibes over what to expect from the respective gatherings.