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Four audiences, one show

So. National Political Party Conventions are strange things at this point in their evolution. As you watch them (or don’t, but if you don’t, then you can probably skip this note), one of the things that keeps coming up is the tension between the various audiences, and the various things that the Party wants from those various audiences. I would identify four different audiences with very little overlap, and with very little overlap in what the Party wants from them.

Let’s start with the two small audiences. One of those is the crowd in the hall itself, the conventioneers. They are largely there as props for the television audience. Yes, there are also some big donors there, and this crowd has a lot to do in GOTV and other local parts of the campaign, but most of these people would do most of that stuff anyway. They are activists. They do politics either for a living or as a hobby. The Party does need them, but the Party generally has them, and as long as they don’t screw it up, it’ll be fine. On the other hand, when the speakers make their speeches, the crowd is vitally important. Not only does an enthusiastic and attentive crowd look and sound good on television, they give back energy to the speaker. When you watch the thing in your living room, you may not feel part of the connection between the speaker and the live audience, but you can (whether consciously as a critic or not) tell whether that connection is there. The conventioneers most important task is to cheer, to chant and to, er, something else that begins with a ch. Not choose, though.

The other important small audience is the press, mostly the people there at the hall. They have to be persuaded to tell a particular story of the convention. This time, for my party, it’s a particularly compelling story—will the Clinton and Obama wings of the party work together? Will Bill Clinton flip out and call Sen. Obama a ******* on live television? Will Sen. Obama pull a knife? Or will they all join hands and pledge to a cause that is bigger than any of them, the cause of America?

I’m being snarky, but actually, what the Party wants out of the press is not just to be a perfectly transparent window into the convention (which is not going to happen) but to frame and tint things in a way that is to the advantage of the Party. The press are largely sophisticated, educated and informed people, so if you are going to manipulate them, you usually need something shiny, or some barbecue. Tragically, they are as likely to eat the shiny thing and put the barbecue in their pockets as the other way around. But you have to try.

Then there’s the big audience that I’m in, the people who are going to vote for the Party’s nominee no matter what, and who are tuning in to be entertained and consoled. We’re looking to get a peek at next cycle’s candidates for one thing and another, and to get a peek at the campaign’s themes and signs and all, and we like to be told we’re right about our policies and prejudices. But it’s not going to affect our votes, because our votes are in the right place. This year, Sen. Obama’s campaign would like us all to donate twenty bucks or so, where because of an oddity in the law, that wasn’t very important in previous cycles. And it’s always nice if the Party can get us off our asses so we can make a few calls, too, but most of us aren’t going to do that, and it’s pretty unlikely that we are going to be persuaded to do it over the television, anyway. Really, the most important thing that the Party wants me to do, after watching the thing, is to talk to my co-workers and neighbors and friends about how wonderful it was, and how I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. I was going to vote for him anyway, but perhaps I wouldn’t have brought him up in conversation, or perhaps somebody else in the fourth audience will bring it up and I can say that it was a great speech and a great convention, and all.

That fourth audience is the group of people who have not yet made up their minds who to vote for, or whether to vote. In some ways, this is the most important audience, since the candidate that gets most of those voters will almost certainly win the election. On the other hand, very few of those voters are sitting down to watch the convention. Maybe they will sit down to pay attention to the Big Speech, or to two or even three Nearly Big Speeches by the vice-presidential nominee or the previous President. More likely, they will see a report on an evening newscast, or hear about it on the radio, or see a headline on an on-line portal page or even on a good old-fashioned newspaper. Or, with luck, they’ll talk about it with a coworker or neighbor or relative.

So. The Party, and each of the people within the Party (each of whom likely has his or her own separate sub-goal, an appointment or nomination or meeting or whatnot), have to work all four of those audiences simultaneously, largely all from the same podium, and their success with each group affects their success with some of the other groups. Any individual moment may be for one group or another; any individual moment may be attempting to work in different ways for different groups. When the action on the podium stops and the music starts blasting for the crowd to dance, that’s getting the crowd ready to cheer for the next speaker, and it’s also letting the networks cut to a commercial or chat with a pundit. Some of the scheduling is aimed at me, and some isn’t.

So when you are watching, and I’m guessing almost all of my Gentle Readers are in the third audience, those that have already made up their minds (unless any of y’all are still seriously considering voting for a third Party), it’s interesting to look at the things that are aimed at the other groups. The moments that are for the crowd, the ones that are for the press, the ones that are for the swing voters. In a way, ours is the least important audience. Unless I do my job and start some conversations.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,