Robert Schlesinger is managing editor for opinion at U.S. News and World Report, overseeing all opinion editorial content. He is the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. Follow him on Twitter: @rschles.
TAMPA—In some ways, Mitt Romney and the Republicans had it easy last week. Their challenge was both clear and simple: Introduce and humanize Mitt Romney, a figure who has captured the Republican nomination for the presidency but still remains, as adviser Ron Kaufman put it here last week, "kind of a blank slate." Romney, says Republican strategist Ralph Reed, is "largely unknown" to voters. So mission one in Tampa, from Ann Romney's spousal paean last Tuesday night to Romney's big speech last Thursday, was to finally fill in the details, which the Democrats have been grimly, methodically, and expensively providing for months.
The Obama team's challenge in Charlotte this week is more complicated. A ubiquitous incumbent, President Obama is a known quantity. That's why his poll numbers have remained static in the face of the Romney campaign's focus on him at the cost of leaving their man a "blank slate." That's why Obama's campaign and its allies have in turn focused exclusively on the GOP nominee—but Charlotte can't simply be three days of going after the GOP hammer and tongs.
So here are four challenges for Obama and the Democrats when they get their licks in this week in Charlotte. In each case, the party needs careful balance on the message they are trying to convey.
Who's the new Ted Kennedy? For years Democrats could rely on the venerable senator from Massachusetts to rouse the faithful at the party's quadrennial gathering. He was the irrepressible voice of the Democrats' liberal conscience and a lasting connection to near mythic figures in the party. This will be the first convention in more than 50 years that he won't attend.
The party's big guns—Obama especially, but also Bill Clinton—need to focus on making the case to independents and the middle class, but someone still needs to preach to the faithful and fire them up. This isn't because of an enthusiasm gap: A Washington Post/ABC News poll released earlier last week showed no such gap currently exists. But in a razor-thin election, the troops have to be ready to march.
Make the middle class Obama's base. Democrats have carefully tended to the individual parts of their coalition—women and minorities, especially—and that will be on display, especially at the convention speaker's podium.
And there's a reason for it; the electorate has become demographically polarized, with Obama holding a commanding lead among minority voters while he is in danger of losing whites by record margins. National Journal's Ron Brownstein calculates that if Obama can match the 80 percent of the vote he won among minorities four years ago, he can afford to win only 40 percent of white voters. Both figures are entirely realistic, though Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz predicts that "those numbers will move quite a bit."
The percentage of whites in the electorate has fallen from 88 percent in 1980 to 74 percent in 2008, according to Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who notes that had the electorate four years ago looked like the 1980 version, John McCain would be president. This will likely be the last presidential election which Republicans can rely entirely on white voters. But the converse is that Democrats can't run the risk of falling back into the perception trap of the 1970s and 1980s, seeming to be too focused on constituency politics at the expense of the broader middle class, an image the Romney campaign seems intent on reviving with its fabricated welfare issue, a line of attack which Wasserman Schultz calls "a dog whistle for voters who consider race when casting a ballot."
"The Democrats have a more complicated coalition than the Republicans do," says Democratic operative Simon Rosenberg. "Managing that diversity is harder than what the Republicans have to do. I don't know that there's a danger; I just think the convention is going to feel and look different than the Republican one." The key, says Democratic pollster Drew Lieberman, is to ensure that "all of these people fit under the umbrella of the middle class."
Make the comparison, carefully. The most notable thing about the race thus far has been how static it is. Very soon after clinching the nomination, Romney pulled into a dead heat with the president and the top line poll numbers have remained relatively unchanged. What has changed markedly over the last few months, however, has been voters' view of Romney personally. A USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday showed Obama outpacing Romney in terms of likability, 54 percent to 31 percent.
That's the fruit of months of Democrats defining Romney because he didn't. But that's political background noise for most voters. The convention will actually have their attention, so they can't be wholly negative. "They want to keep the contrast in the mix but…it's hard to get up on national TV for [three] days and just have a Mitt Romney bashing session," says Lieberman.
Says Wasserman Schultz, "The way I would measure a successful convention for us next week is clearly articulating the two paths and the two visions."
Speak to the future. The flip side of the contrast strategy is Obama's positive vision. He needs to explain to voters where he wants to take the country. "Democrats need to make it more clear about what will happen if they get elected over the next four years," says Rosenberg.
That's tough for the reasons I mentioned above—Obama is a known quantity, making voters hard to surprise or persuade. But one lesson that has become clear over the years: Don't bet against Obama in a high stakes speech.
- Photos: Protesters Get Vocal at Republican National Convention
- Photos: Mitt Romney Accepts GOP Nomination
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy