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Shifting the Message or Shifting the Party?

Fmr.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration in Prague (2011)

Fmr.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration in Prague. July 1, 2011. Photo by David Sedlecký. CC-SA.

Democrats and Republicans have traditionally offered divergent messages in their conventions. Democrats and Republicans have traditionally offered divergent messages in their conventions.  Democrats have tended to focus on social welfare issues while Republicans have generally showcased foreign affairs.

When it comes to messaging, this Republican National Convention has offered a jarring departure from the traditional GOP script.  Typically, Republicans in convention have played to the longstanding partisan advantage they’ve enjoyed with the public on foreign affairs.  But that theme has been virtually absent here in Tampa.  In fact, for at least some of us in the audience, one welcome feature of Condoleezza Rice’s widely heralded speech last night was its partial departure from what has become a rather repetitive message over the last two days.  The former Secretary of State not only captivated a restless and distracted crowd, but actually offered remarks on something other than the economy.  Yet as refreshing as it was to hear a new message emanating from the podium, it’s actually the party’s otherwise monotonous focus on the economy and the budget that tells us much more about Mitt Romney’s Republican Party and that signals a major shift in GOP messaging.

In the modern “infomercial” era of national conventions, the parties’ most important task is to explain to millions of television viewers why they should vote Democrat or Republican.  This objective produces what social scientists might call a “data rich” event in which dozens of party elites read carefully scripted messages to convey the party’s message to the public and—just as importantly—to educate the assembled delegates about what, exactly, that message is.

For scholars of parties and the party system, these messages are a potential treasure trove.  They’re easily accessible and comprise an unrivaled guide to the parties’ public philosophies.  Yet few scholars write about or pay much attention to—let alone show up at—party conventions.  University of Wisconsin political scientists Byron Shafer, who has been attending both major party conventions since 1980, is a notable exception.

Shafer’s work emphasizes:

“Every convention, no matter how well or badly managed, no matter how modestly or even thinly covered, does succeed in putting some messages—substantive arguments plus operational impressions—in front of a general public that, while viewership and ratings have declined, still registers in the multi-millions.” 

Democrats and Republicans have traditionally offered divergent messages during their respective conventions. While Democrats have tended to focus on social welfare issues, Republicans have generally showcased foreign affairs. But—Rice aside—that’s not we’ve seen here in Tampa.  Foreign affairs haven’t just played second fiddle to domestic issues, they’ve been almost entirely missing from the Republican message.  An economically-oriented message would always be expected from budget hawks like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie.  But this year’s GOP message clearly goes deeper than that.  The Republicans gathered here in Tampa have chosen to ignore foreign affairs and have gone all-in on the economy and their “grown-up” approach to the budget.  The outcome of the election in November will likely tell us a lot about whether this year’s shift in GOP messaging represents an enduring change in the party’s presentation of itself to the American public or is merely a temporary diversion.

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