Nothing makes me feel sorrier for the once powerful local bosses of each political party than the spectacle of a modern nominating convention. In their glory days, these wily neighborhood sloggers would listen to speeches, size up the appeal of each candidate against hometown tastes, wheel, deal and finally make the thousands of individual decisions that would eventually choose the nominee.
Today there is only one big decision to be made, and the job belongs to a TV programmer, not a political boss. Conventions are little more than soundstages now. Everything from the backdrop to the musical choices asks the question, Who is the convention trying to reach?
For Barack Obama and the Democrats, it all comes down to this: Should Obama try to win by running up big numbers among the young liberals and well-off independents who cheer his hip style of designer politics? Or should he concentrate on recapturing the older and decidedly unhip working-class voters who rejected him in droves during the primaries?
It is not an easy puzzle. From its beginning, Obama's impressive campaign has reached upmarket. His tone is perfectly middlebrow, which has made him irresistible to the wine-and-cheese lovers of the self-consciously sensible center. Republicans saw troubling signs of this way back in January's Iowa caucuses, when they discovered, to their shock, that Obama was actually pulling some moderate Republican voters away from the GOP caucus. His success in Iowa has been so complete that it may abandon its swing-state tendencies and move firmly into Obama's column. And it's not just Iowa. Last month I saw a poll showing Obama with a surprisingly strong lead in Detroit's wealthiest suburban county. If he can ride the Democratic surge this year while scoring big with independents, the race will be his.
Still, there are risks. John McCain will make his own claim on those independents. While Obama is likely to pick up the votes of almost everybody who voted in the Democratic primaries, there are plenty of older white working-class voters who are still far from sold on him, if not downright suspicious.
Democratic strategists often make the mistake of assuming that these white, economically downscale voters will automatically make their ballot choices on the basis of class. In fact, many vote on culture. Obama's academic style is much of his problem. For many, Obama reminds them of the Ivy League whiz kids they've dealt with at work during the latest downsizing. They look at him and see another bloodless young achiever coming down from the top floor to fix the ailing machine-tool company. They listen to his polished pitch in the employee cafeteria, and he wins some converts. But after he is finished, a few old-timers exchange knowing glances and mutter to one another about how young this hotshot is. Somebody makes a cynical and unkind remark about affirmative action. Deep down, they think he'd rather hit the executive gym for a cardio workout during lunch hour than share a cheesesteak and beer with the hourly workforce. And they ask one another, Why did he change his name in college back to Barack? What's wrong with Barry?
Unless Obama can break down the wall between him and these Barry-cratic voters, it will be very hard for him to seize the game-winning electoral prizes of Michigan and Ohio. The convention message and optics would be a very good place to start.
To that end, many of the old-school party regulars now assigned to loyally wave HOPE and CHANGE signs for the TV cameras in Denver would dearly love to see Obama switch out some of his "together we can" endive salad for a big populist pile of economic red meat. Last week Ohio governor Ted Strickland called for Obama to "speak more clearly and specifically about the kitchen-table, bread-and-butter issues." While Obama has to be careful not to delve too far into Strickland's brand of Stone Age union economics, reconnecting with basic Democratic economic issues is good advice. Obama cannot reclaim the lunch-pail wing of the Democratic Party simply by treating Hillary Clinton like a monarch at the convention. These voters are not hers to deliver; Obama has to earn them back on his own with a convention that reaches out to those hardworking Americans who don't drive a Prius, don't listen to npr, don't buy syrahand assure them that it is still very much their Democratic Party too.
Murphy is a consultant who has worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. In 2000 he was senior strategist for Senator John McCain's presidential race