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Did it do what they wanted? A look at the two conventions

Did it do what they wanted? A look at the two conventions
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The highlight of the Democratic convention was not Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit On The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain MORE. It was Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old kid in an orange t-shirt who said he and Biden have “something in common.” Of course, I guessed what it was, but it was only when he said “We —” and blocked on the next word that I felt the impact.

He stopped, took a breath, then another. “Stutter,” he said. I choked up.

I didn’t expect something like that from the Republicans; I’m a Democrat. I was wrong.

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This time it was Madison Cawthorn, 25, a congressional candidate whose views I can’t stand. He’s in a wheelchair, paralyzed below the waist from a car accident. As he finished his speech, two guys came out to hold his chair while he struggled to stand. It was hard, not graceful. He wanted to show us (and maybe himself) that he could do it. 

When he was on his feet, his views became irrelevant; his struggle made me see him as a person.

There’s nothing wrong with skillful scripts if they communicate something real. Despite the orchestrated events at both conventions, there were moments such as these that made us realize that people are more than their political views.

But did any of that matter? Did eight days of two conventions change people’s views or the direction the presidential campaigns might take? Now that the post-convention polls are in, we can see some answers. 

We saw a skillful, imaginative Democratic convention. Forced by COVID-19 to abandon the old ways, its producers, directors and writers came up with something better. The short speeches, vignettes of ordinary people, heavy use of pre-shot videos and montages made this far more interesting than any of the four conventions on which I worked. By dramatizing Biden’s personal tragedies, they made convincing some of his most moving lines.

Did he cherry-pick some stats and gloss over some issues that were more complex than he allowed? Yes. But fact-checkers largely confirmed his facts. 

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Republicans could be happy with the skill their writers and producers displayed, too. They offered a succession of good, sometimes moving, speakers, often African Americans. Their stories were well-written. The speakers were well-coached; there was no reason to doubt them. The convention, wrote one Republican, appealed to the “reluctant voter” — those who worry about whether Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE is a racist. The Republican message was aimed not just at the base; it was meant to reassure those in doubt, in effect, that “We’re not racists. We like immigrants. We care about poor people. We support women.”

Weren’t the speeches, especially those of the vice president and president, full of falsehoods? Absolutely. Didn’t Republicans abandon tradition by making flagrant use of the White House, showing us a naturalization ceremony, Trump issuing a pardon or speaking to a select, non-mask-wearing audience on the South Lawn? Yes, but that seems to matter only to some pundits.

Republicans could point to the bump Trump got. “Biden lead shrinks to 6 points,” one headline read. That’s true: 9 points up in early August, Biden now leads, 47-41. Other polls show pretty much the same small bounce.

One should discount that bounce, however. Republicans went second; they should catch up a little. Besides, about 65 percent of undecideds usually vote for the incumbent. In 2020 that alone isn’t enough for this incumbent to catch up. In the swing states that helped Trump win four years ago, Biden still leads. He’s up by 7 points in Pennsylvania, 5 in Wisconsin. He’s even ahead in Arizona, which has voted Democratic just once in the past 68 years. 

In other words, after eight expensive, well-produced days, the conventions left Americans about where they were before they began. 

Why? Why didn’t moments that moved us to tears have more influence?

Because that’s true about so many American political traditions. Only once in a while do you have a moment that changes things: Without Richard Nixon’s 1952 “Checkers speech,” or Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCensus results show White House doubling down on failure Gender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama Never underestimate Joe Biden MORE’s 2004 “skinny guy with a funny name,” neither would have become president. 

Even after a  brilliant State of the Union speech, inauguration, debate — or  convention — the effects are relatively small. 

It’s possible for Trump to erase Biden’s 6-point lead. In 1968, Nixon was more than 10 points ahead of Hubert Humphrey; Nixon won, but so narrowly the result wasn’t clear until the next day. 

There are those who believe the steady succession of poignant stories offered by Republicans made theirs the more successful of the two conventions. Maybe. In the end, though, it’s not rhetoric that decides elections. It’s numbers. 

About 235 million Americans are eligible to vote; more than 150 million are registered. We might see 130 million cast a ballot in November. Two-thirds of them watched not a minute of either convention. They saw neither a kid who stuttered, nor a young candidate in a wheelchair. For those Americans, nothing either convention did could have any direct effect at all.

Except for one thing: During the eight days of conventions, almost 9,000 Americans died from something we describe in words — pandemic, COVID-19 — that don’t begin to tell its horror. On the last day of the Republican convention, 1,143 Americans died from it — perhaps 55 during Trump’s speech. 

Even those who did not watch know that one convention put the pandemic front and center, and outlined a plan to control it. The other decided to mention it as if it were a Trump achievement or, astonishingly, allow speakers to talk as if it were over. (“It was horrible,” said Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow.)

On the Republican convention’s last day, Pew Research released a poll measuring how 14 countries feel about the way their governments have handled the pandemic; 12 approved  — Denmark, by 95 percent. The only countries below 50 percent? The United States and England.

Neither party had an edge when it came to creating an interesting, innovative four nights. But one convention’s producers (or their boss) made a mistake. They tried to make viewers avert their eyes from the dreadful events that lie ahead. 

Yes, numbers matter in elections: number of voters, of swing states, of each day’s polling — or the number of beloved husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons or daughters who, between now and Nov. 3, will take their last breaths because of COVID-19. My guess: On the day Americans head to the polls, that number will be the one that counts most. 

Bob Lehrman, chief speechwriter for former vice president Al Gore, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He has authored four novels and thousands of speeches, and given speechwriting workshops around the world. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Com, recently released in a second edition. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.