POV

09.01.12

Mitt Romney Rocked His Speech—Inside the Republican Convention Bubble

He was huge in the hall, not so much on the screen. Lauren Ashburn on how gauging the impact of a convention speech depends on where you sit.

Those rip-roaring Romney delegates sure know how to pump up a room.

On the final night of the Republican convention, the party faithful jammed into the Tampa Bay Times Forum, whooping and hollering about Clint, Rubio, and Romney like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

Judging from their loud and frenzied reaction, you might have thought we were witnessing speeches for the history books—Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” or Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Well, not quite.

After surveying the postgame punditry of the convention finale, I had to wonder if I was at the same event. Many of those who watched the speeches in the confines of a newsroom or a living room came away with a different picture than those of us who were there. Except, that is, for the rambling, unscripted Eastwood routine where he conducted a debate with an empty chair—pretty sure we can all agree we saw the same bizarro thing.

For journalists crammed into skyboxes and writing stations above the arena floor—and even more so for those elbow-to-elbow with Romney lovers on the floor—it can be difficult to gauge the quality and impact of the speeches. Mentally blocking the electricity surging through the air is harder than it may seem.

Jerry Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, watched on television and thought Romney delivered a good speech. But when he watches such addresses from the arena, Seib says, he calls his wife to get a fix on how it looked on TV. In this case, she had fallen asleep.

In light of declining ratings, Seib says, “the idea of the convention speech as a big television spectacular seems like an anachronism.”

From my perch on Thursday night, it seemed that Mitt Romney was really connecting. He spoke movingly about his parents, got a rousing response to every paean to business success and American values. He was often interrupted by chants of “USA! USA!” (as opposed to “Mitt! Mitt!”). By the time his running mate and family joined him for the balloon drop, the place was rocking. But many political analysts glued to the tube found the speech workmanlike.

It’s not unlike watching a baseball game where the home crowd goes nuts, or a Springsteen concert filled with diehard Bruce fans. The raucous reaction seems to foster an aura of triumph.

For journalists crammed into skyboxes and writing stations above the arena floor, it can be difficult to gauge the quality and impact of the speeches.

When watching on the small screen, by contrast, close-up camera angles supersize every voice crackle, every facial expression, every bead of sweat. Just ask Richard Nixon. Or for that matter, Howard Dean or Al Gore.

After losing the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Dean let out a rebel yell designed to fire up his supporters. Within minutes, the clip went viral and played in an endless loop on 24-hour cable news. Late-night comedians licked their chops, quickly writing searing “what was he thinking”’ monologues ripping him to shreds.

For those watching at home, he came across as a crazy man. The power of television—the isolation of a single moment—all but killed Dean’s already faltering run, and marked him for life as a man too impulsive to lead. But in the room, without the sound amplified, reporters who witnessed it barely took notice. It wasn’t until they saw it on the screen that they realized the import of the moment.

Going back to 2000, who can forget Gore’s whiny sighs and moans as he debated George W. Bush? For those watching in person, his show of annoyance seemed a minor detail, not part of the debate itself. But network cameras, by switching from wide shots of the stage to close-up reaction shots of the candidates—zooming in on Gore’s eye rolls—showed a distinctly petulant side of the vice president. That dominated the post-debate coverage and forced Gore to tone things down in his subsequent encounters with Bush.

The pattern was set in the first televised debate in 1960, when people who listened on radio thought Nixon had won, while television viewers favored the young and unflappable Jack Kennedy over the visibly perspiring Nixon.

Half a century later, the contrast is just as stark. From my press-box seat inside the convention bubble, the balloons, the music, and the red and blue shining lights suggested that Romney had knocked it out of the park and really stuck it to the president. Apparently that’s not the speech the rest of America saw.