Choosing the Right Acceptance Speech

Editor’s note: Robert Rupp, a political historian at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va., is providing a daily journal of analysis and happenings from the Republican National Convention.

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ST. PAUL, Minn. – The acceptance speech should be the highlight of any party convention. It represents the nominee’s opportunity to stage a sendoff of the delegates and an introduction to a large national audience.

But a review of past speeches suggest that once again John McCain has established himself as a maverick. For unlike the context of past conventions, there was not much pressure or hype preceding his speech on Thursday.

It was his good fortune that before he even started his speech, he was known to the voters; he and Barack Obama are tied in the polls; and he has his party united. In fact, his only concern prior to taking the stage was that the address might not live up to the speech given Wednesday by vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

For most acceptance speeches fall under one of four categories.

  • Behind and Comeback – Behind in the polls and still not well known, the presidential nominee uses the acceptance speech to stage a comeback and give a boost to the party and campaign.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush took advantage of low expectations to set the stage to overcome Michael Dukakis’ double-digit lead. Memorable quotes included the “1,000 points of light” and “Read my lips.”

Four years later, candidate Bill Clinton re-introduced himself at the 1992 Democratic convention as the “Man from Hope” rather than a candidate mired in controversy.

In 2000, Al Gore used his acceptance speech to overcome a reputation of being more competent than compelling. His speech and a well-run convention allowed him to grab the lead in the polls, which he maintained until the first debate.

Those three speeches worked in part because the low expectations of the media and the friendly audience of the party activists.

  • Ahead but Not Known – When he gave his acceptance speech in 2004, John Kerry was ahead in the polls, but still unknown to the public. His speech became known as the “Salute and Say Nice” speech. Kerry emphasized his military experience at the start of his speech by saluting and saying “Reporting for duty.” Then, because he was ahead in the polls, he did not attack President Bush directly.

His speech reflected the mistaken belief that the public was ready to abandon President Bush.

  • Assured and Known – The candidate, usually an incumbent, is ahead in the polls, such as was the case with Ronald Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2004.
  • Overshadowed – Several times an acceptance speech by a presidential nominee was overshadowed by a defeated opponent. This happened in 1976 to Gerald Ford by remarks of Ronald Reagan, in 1980 to Jimmy Carter by Ted Kennedy’s speech, and in 1988 to Michael Dukakis by Jesse Jackson’s speech.

Each time the party had just finished a hard nomination fight and the opponent who could not get enough delegates at the convention ended up getting all the media attention.

Before he walked to the podium on Thursday, McCain was already known to the electorate. His story and record has already been told. As a senator for 20 years and a presidential candidate in 2000, McCain also is known to the public.

He used his acceptance speech to enhance his reputation as a maverick, but he did not have to establish a reputation as Obama had to do at Denver.

McCain also had the advantage of addressing a recently unified convention. Libertarians on one side and social conservatives on the other had been hesitant supporters of the Arizona senator. But the concerns were eradicated by McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin and her enthusiastic reception on Wednesday.

Finally, McCain enjoys the benefit of being tied in most polls – an unexpected position given the state of the economy and low polls of President Bush.

Bush essentially was left out of this year’s convention, giving only a short video speech. This is the McCain convention more than a Republican convention.

In a time when 60 percent of the electorate believes the nation is moving in the wrong direction, McCain not only must raise doubts about his opponent, but also must identify himself as the candidate of change.