3Qs: Moving beyond the conventions

The end of the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., marked the beginning of a new phase of the presidential race between incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. We asked former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic nominee for president Michael Dukakis, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science in Northeastern’s College of Social Science and Humanities, to weigh in on the race.

One of the highest-profile speakers at the DNC was former President Clinton. What can a former president communicate to voters that the nominee cannot? On the flip side, what message does the absence of a high-profile appearance by former President George W. Bush send to voters?

It all depends on who the former president is, obviously. Clinton, in addition to his popularity — which remains high — has an ability to talk about politics and express himself in a way that is very rare. And the older he gets, the better he gets at this. I don’t know how you can improve on the case he made for Obama, which I assume he’s going to make around the country with the campaign.

Clinton has this ability to talk to you as if he’s in your living room – maybe Michelle Obama has it too, but very few people in politics can do that. It’s a speech only he could have given, something that makes the case for the reelection of President Obama in a way that’s very personal, that resonates with voters.

But if you have a president who is pretty unpopular, like George W. Bush, I don’t think you want him at your convention. You don’t want to remind people of the eight years that brought us into this mess we’re in. So it was that simple: The Romney campaign didn’t ask him and he didn’t come.

The Democrats had to hold repeated voice votes on revisions to its party platform, which originally omitted references to God and the position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. From an historical perspective, do these party platforms — for both Democrats and Republicans — play a significant role in elections?

Generally speaking, platforms don’t have much impact on the average voter, but they may when there’s serious controversy about them. Even though there was some disagreement this year for the Democrats, it was nothing that exposed a deep divide in the party. We have had fierce or even quite divisive platform fights on the Democratic side before, and I’m sure the Republicans have had them too. That wasn’t the case here.

If you have a big battle in the party over major issues, I don’t think that’s going to help your ticket. Usually you work to address those before the convention so you don’t have a fight in front of the whole country.

What points did both Obama and Romney stress in their respective conventions in order to woo swing voters? Moving forward, how will each candidate continue to target voters who are either still undecided or unsure if they will vote?

Even before you get to the issue of politics, there is this very serious issue of voter suppression, largely pushed by Republican state legislators who are passing new voter ID statutes when there’s not even the slightest evidence of voter fraud. It’s an effort to suppress people who don’t have voter ID because they don’t have driver’s license because they cannot afford to own a car. And those voters are not the kind to usually vote for Republicans; they’re far more likely to support President Obama and Democrats.

Pennsylvania has one that could disenfranchise 750,000 voters — which is the margin of votes that could make a real difference in November. These statues have passed in Ohio, they’ve passed in Indiana — all battleground states. They’ve passed in some southern states where the federal courts have thrown them out already since changes are still subject to oversight under the Voting Rights Act. So one of the things that both the Obama campaign and the Democrats have to do is make sure that these people who will be potentially disenfranchised have access to photo IDs – and that will be a major task.

In terms of the general campaign, there’s no question the economy will remain the key issue. The Obama campaign has to communicate, like Clinton did last week, that they inherited a disaster, but since taking office they created jobs and are on track to create more. Romney and Ryan have to communicate that Obama’s policies haven’t worked and that they’re not going to work. Romney is going to communicate that the economy hasn’t recovered fast enough, so it’s time to make a change.