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Mitt Romney's star turn: Do acceptance speeches matter?

August 30, 2012|By Paul West
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) pose with campaign staffers during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)

TAMPA, Fla. – Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech Thursday night has been described, aptly, as the biggest of his life. It’s the Republican presidential nominee’s single best chance, between now and the election, to speak directly, unfiltered and at considerable length to an audience of tens of millions of voters.

But do acceptance speeches matter? More to the point, do they win presidential elections?

“I can’t remember one that did,” said veteran political writer Jack Germond, who covered his first convention in 1960, when the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy.

Ken Khachigian, the chief speechwriter for Ronald Reagan whose credits include Reagan’s acceptance speech for his 1984 re-election, couldn’t come up with one either.

He mentioned one that, in his view and that of some others, cost a nominee an election: In 1984, Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee, declared: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.”

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While Americans may not base their vote on what Romney says in Tampa, or President Obama says at his party’s convention a week from now in Charlotte, N.C., an acceptance speech is central to the course of a presidential campaign.

It’s “the opening statement to the jury (the voters),”said Khachigian, a lawyer by training. It should contain no more than a handful of main points, which will serve as “a road map, or rough architectural sketch” of what the nominee would do, if elected.

Romney’s speech will have another key component: personalizing—“humanizing” is the catch-word of the week—the 65-year-old candidate and, by extension, improving what are highly negative attitudes toward him by a large segment of the electorate.

He’s been condemned “as some sort of bloodsucking robber baron,” said Khachigian, who predicts that Romney “is going to surprise in terms of warmth”—not least, he added, because expectations for his performance are low.

The former Massachusetts governor is by no means the only nominee who has needed to chip away at a negative personal image in a presidential campaign.

In 1980, when Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for the first time, he was still regarded by many voters as a washed-up actor with hard-right views and an itchy nuclear trigger finger, despite having served multiple terms as governor of California.

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Germond recalled what Reagan told him in 1980: “He said, ‘I’ve got to convince people I’m not a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Mad Bomber.’”

At that summer’s convention in Detroit, Reagan’s called for “a new beginning” and laid out the themes of his challenge to an incumbent Democratic president. But it was his line from a televised debate the week before the election (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”) that is remembered as a decisive moment from that campaign, not his acceptance speech.

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