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In Charlotte, preaching to the choir may be wise for Obama

Barack Obama needs to impress undecided and unlikely voters at this week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. EPA/Tannen Maury

“You know there is something wrong with the kind of job he has done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.” It was the best line of Romney’s convention speech and highlights the challenges for Obama as the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Romney’s statement is backed up by the data. A July Gallup Poll found that compared to previous elections, only 39% of Democrats “are more enthusiastic than usual about voting”.

These figures should be worrisome to the Obama campaign. The President relies on heavy support from young people and minorities: two groups whose share of the population is much greater than their electoral clout. If they stay home on November 6th, Romney could easily eke out a narrow victory in a low-turnout base-driven election.

As such, the goal of the convention isn’t simply to court “undecideds”. It’s to convince voters who are unsure whether they will vote at all. This is especially true in the current era of polarised politics where the undecided segment of the electorate is quite small.

The big draw of the first night will be Julian Castro’s keynote speech. The San Antonio Mayor is the first Latino to deliver the keynote; a choice that illustrates the incredible importance of the Hispanic vote.

Like all Americans, Hispanics are primarily concerned about jobs. But, immigration is a close second and is an issue where they overwhelmingly trust Democrats over Republicans.

To survive the Republican primary Mitt Romney had to match his party’s rightward shift on immigration. In a January debate, he explained that stricter laws would encourage residents to “self-deport”. Team Obama knows that immigration is a potential liability for Romney in the general election. The Republican nominee is caught between a party base that won’t tolerate moderation on the issue and Hispanics and moderate voters who are largely put off by the GOP’s hard-line stance.

A prominent speaking role can also catapult a relatively unknown politician into the national spotlight: see Obama, Barack. Democrats recognise the young and charismatic Castro has the potential to become a political force beyond the borders of the Lone Star State. Slotting him into a prime-time speaking role is a shrewd political move in the short-term but also one that could pay dividends in the years ahead.

The highlight of the second night will be Bill Clinton’s formal nomination of President Obama. Putting the former president in prime-time has a lot of pluses but also presents some risks.

The advantages are obvious. Two-thirds of Americans have a favourable impression of Clinton. If he’s on script, he can offer an eloquent endorsement of Obama that will resonate with a lot of voters.

Former president Bill Clinton’s address is expected to be a highlight of the Democrats’ convention. EPA/Justin Lane

Clinton is also at the centre of another current campaign issue. The Romney camp has been running an ad implying that Obama is gutting the work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform that Clinton signed into law. The ad is extremely misleading but also effective. Clinton has denounced the attacks on the stump but the Democrats would love for him to do it again in front of a national audience.

The potential drawbacks are evident as well. The relationship between Obama and Clinton has been at times testy. And while the two have patched up many of their differences, Clinton has still maintained some of the obstinacy of a former president. According to the New York Post’s Edward Klein, “the Obama campaign has insisted on seeing the speech before Clinton delivers it, and Clinton has just as insistently refused to show it to them.”

The convention closes Thursday night with Obama’s speech. Expect him to tout his accomplishments but also emphasise how much work there is to be done. A key point throughout the entire convention will be the consequences of returning to Republican style-policies that liberals blame for the country’s current woes. The election isn’t just about what Obama can and will do, it’s about what Romney would do if given the chance.

In his address, Obama needs to energise supporters and convey the stakes of the election. However, he must do so in pragmatic terms; avoiding the “Hope” and “Change” style rhetoric that he campaigned on in 2008. It’s a difficult tightrope, but one Obama must walk if he hopes to capture the momentum in Charlotte.

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