Thanks to the weather, Republicans will not start their convention today in Tampa, Fla., as planned. But as they gather, they face the task of rallying to win what has become an incredibly close presidential race. An average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics has President Obama enjoying an edge of less than one point. Polls in swings states such as Florida, Virginia and Ohio have tightened up, and now even Michigan and Wisconsin -- once sure Obama states -- are considered tossups.
Conventions are often overrated in terms of their impact on the result of the elections. Typically, according to historical Gallup data, candidates can expect to see a short-lived, five-point bounce from their conventions, which is then offset by the opposing candidate's convention.
That said, along with this fall's debates, the GOP convention represents one of the best opportunities for Romney and running mate Paul Ryan to introduce themselves to the electorate and hone their campaign message. If the Republican convention is to be successful, it needs to accomplish three main things.
First, the convention must convey Romney's human qualities. Obama cannot run on his record, given the stubbornly high unemployment rate and the dismal state of the economy. His only hope of winning is to make his opponent seem even less appealing. In the past few months, the Obama campaign has had some success with this approach, portraying Romney as a wealthy and out-of-touch businessman who coolly laid off workers and shipped jobs overseas for the sake of profit.
The convention can counter this image not only by highlighting Romney's successful business career, but also by making him seem less detached. The speeches and presentations can emphasize his deep commitment to his family and his service to the community. In the tax returns from 2010 and estimated returns for 2011 that he released earlier this year, Romney reported giving about 16.4 percent of his income to his family charity, the Tyler Foundation. Romney's friends marvel at his genuine concern for others. In one notable example, he shut down Bain Capital so that all the partners could help a colleague search for a daughter who had gone missing in New York City.
Second, Republicans must remind America of Obama's failures as president. Obama has presided over a weak economy, soaring debt and a historic expansion of the federal government. It's a message that has often been obscured by the daily distractions of the campaign, but the convention offers Republicans four days to hammer it home. After three and a half years and an $833 billion stimulus package, unemployment stands at 8.3 percent and economic growth for the most recent quarter was just 1.5 percent.
On January 7, 2009 -- about two weeks before Obama was sworn into office, and after the financial crisis had hit -- the CBO projected that deficits would total $1.47 trillion from 2010 through 2012. With two years on the books and about a month to go in the 2012 fiscal year, the actual number under Obama's leadership is $3.72 trillion, or about two and a half times the original estimates, and there has been no corresponding benefit to the economy. Obama's signature piece of legislation was a $1.7 trillion health care law that increases taxes by $1 trillion and imposes a raft of new mandates on individuals and businesses while letting medical costs skyrocket.
Third, Romney must articulate a positive vision for America. Romney has, at times, successfully highlighted Obama's failures as president, but he has usually fallen short in explaining to the American people what he's actually for. Romney has gained some policy muscle with the addition to his ticket of Ryan -- the House Budget Committee chairman most associated with his bold plan to reform entitlements. But ultimately, when Americans go to the polls, they'll do so to elect a president. Romney must explain, clearly and simply, how he intends to revive the economy, rein in the national debt and reform health care in a market-oriented way. He must convince voters not just that Obama has failed them, but also that he can do better.
If the convention can accomplish these three things, voters will have a clearer understanding of their choice in November -- and Romney will have a better-than-even chance of overtaking Obama in the polls and winning the presidency.