The Democratic Convention in Charlotte, NC

The Democratic Party held its quadrennial presidential nominating convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, from September 3 through September 6. The convention broke new ground in terms of place, timing, and length. The convention was the latest in the year in recent history.  It was also held in a state and region that historically have not been friendly to Democrats at the polls. The choice of Charlotte, made two years ago, reflected the Obama campaign’s strategy of enlarging the presidential electoral map. 

American presidents are elected through a system whereby each state has a number of electoral votes equal to its number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus its two senators.  There are 538 total electoral votes for the fifty states and the District of Columbia.  Thus, 270 electoral votes are necessary for the presidential winner.  A state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives the highest popular vote in the state.  For most of the past thirty years, the southern states have voted heavily Republican in presidential elections.  However, in 2008 Obama was able to win three southern states, including North Carolina, which voted Democratic for the first time since 1976.  His winning margin was 14,000 votes, his closest state. Thus, Charlotte was a choice that emphasized the Democratic Party’s desire to stay competitive in a state with fifteen electoral votes that either candidate could win in 2012.

The 2012 convention broke with tradition in its schedule.  Traditionally party conventions have been four days long, starting on Monday and ending on Thursday with sessions in a convention hall.  The Democrats chose not to hold a session on Monday, which may set a precedent for future conventions.  Instead they held an outdoor festival celebrating the region around Charlotte to encourage more activists to come from surrounding areas and become involved in politics looking toward the November election.  Convention sessions began around 5 p.m.  Between then and 10 p.m. a variety of elected Democrats and candidates and key leaders from Democratic constituency groups such as labor, women’s, environmental and civil rights groups gave speeches geared toward their own constituencies.   The labor presence was much more muted than in 2008 for several reasons.  Some in labor were not happy that the convention was in North Carolina, the state with the lowest percentage of union members.  There was some union labor work in construction and communication activities for the convention but none in the hotel, service, and food industries. The recession has affected union membership and resources so most unions made a decision to use resources for election work in the states rather than at the convention.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka did address the convention.  One exception to the low union presence was the United Auto Workers, beneficiaries of the Obama automobile industry loan policies.  The union had several dozen members elected as delegates.  Its president Bob King also addressed the convention. 

The speakers for the key hour of television network coverage reflected Democratic Party’s strategy for winning in November.  On Tuesday the convention keynote speaker, who outlines the themes of the convention and accomplishments of the party, was Julian Castro, the young mayor of San Antonio, Texas.  His youth and dynamic speaking style as well as his Latino heritage all hit key elements of the Obama coalition.  He was followed by First Lady Michelle Obama, who is a dynamic speaker and spoke both on the personal traits of her husband as well as his accomplishments in office.  The delegates gave her a prolonged ovation.  On Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton formally nominated President Obama and gave an impassioned speech lasting nearly an hour.  In his speech, Clinton analytically dissected and exposed the flaws in the Republican Party’s assault on President Obama’s record.  He masterfully combined facts on issues of domestic and foreign policy and weaved them into a case to reelect the president.  The delegates reacted with many interruptions of applause during the speech and a long ovation at its end.  The speech outlined a roadmap to Obama’s reelection. 

On Thursday, the plan had been to hold the session in the Charlotte American football stadium so that more than 70,000 spectators could attend. The outdoor session is an innovation the Democrats began in 2008.  However, poor weather forced the session back into the convention hall which accommodated 25,000.  Vice President Biden accepted his renomination in a speech that focused on the accomplishments of the Obama presidency from domestic issues such as saving the American automobile industry to foreign ones like the efforts against terrorism.

President Obama’s acceptance speech outlined his vision for a second term based on the achievements of his first term.   He soberly stated, "I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention," Obama said.  "The times have changed – and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.”  He asked Americans not turn back on the progress that has been made in areas such as health care, economic policy, financial reform, and foreign policy.   He drew a sharp contrast with the Republican proposals in these areas, which he characterized as reactionary and doomed to create even more economic disparity.  It was an appeal to the center of American politics. He listed goals for his second term including more manufacturing jobs and increased exports, expanding energy efficiency, and making college education more affordable.  He recalled the themes of hope and change from his 2008 campaign saying he has never been more hopeful about the future of the United States than he is now.  The delegates interrupted the speech numerous times and, like with Clinton, gave a long ovation at the end.

The atmosphere and tone at the 2012 convention were different than in 2008.  In 2008, Obama was the insurgent candidate running a campaign on the theme of hope and change against the eight Bush years of two wars and in the midst of an economic crisis.  This year, faced with a slow economy recovery, unemployment rates at more than 8 percent, and a continuing housing slump, the campaign slogan is “Forward” - visibly seen in the thousands of one word placards that delegates held up in the convention hall.  Democrats realize that this election will be much closer than 2008.  The campaign is based on an appeal to perseverance with the Obama policies and an admonition that turning back by electing Mitt Romney will cause further national economic hardship.  The Democrats succeeded in their goals of presenting a well scripted convention and a unified party to the American public. Now comes the work of translating that effort into an election victory. 

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