Sabatos Crystal Ball


Michael Baudinet, U.Va. Center for Politics September 11th, 2008


When asked in 1957 what the greatest threat a politician faced, the newly-elected British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, is alleged to have replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” The politicians and convention-goers in St. Paul last week got a first-hand lesson on the way events can influence politics. With Hurricane Gustav reaching land along the Gulf Coast Monday, the opening day of the Republican National Convention was reduced to a skeletal schedule. The original slate of speakers, including President Bush and Vice President Cheney was eliminated, and only the procedural elements of convening the convention and adopting the rules and platform were conducted. Convention organizers were forced to scramble to fit four days of speakers and events into three, still making changes on the fly even several days into the week to what was certainly a rigidly choreographed schedule. These changes make a day-by-day comparison of the conventions virtually impossible, but nonetheless some contrasts certainly merit discussion.

The Venues

Before launching into a comparison of the actual conventions, let’s first take a look at the venues the national committees chose for their week-long celebrations of party pride. We begin our comparison by looking at the convention halls themselves. Although having only a slightly larger capacity, the Pepsi Center in Denver gave the impression of a much more spacious arena than St. Paul’s XCel Center. That impression was enhanced by the main stage, which was significantly more grandiose in the Pepsi Center than the XCel Center, to say nothing of the Hellenic tribute that graced INVESCO Field for Senator Obama’s acceptance speech. Both venues created headaches for local traffic as security roadblocks severed vehicle access to the surrounding roads. A number of stores and restaurants on ‘pedestrian only’ roads made adjustments to accommodate the circumstances; stores set up outdoor stands, restaurants offered special convention hours, and others rented their space out to the television networks for use as their headquarters. Your Crystal Ball team found it easier to navigate access in St. Paul than in Denver, and was also delighted by a pair of local restaurants that delegates, media members and politicians alike frequented throughout the week.

The Cities

The most significant difference between the two weeks was the reaction of the locals. The attitude toward the convention of most Denver natives encountered by your humble Crystal Ball correspondent ranged from generally indifferent to outwardly hostile. Many were upset by road and business closures necessitated by security, and even those whose reactions were milder admitted they had no intention of traveling downtown that week if at all possible. A number also reported that friends and neighbors opted to take their vacations that week so as to avoid the influx of visitors.

While there are bound to be Twin Cities residents who sympathized with their Denver counterparts, the local reaction was much more ebullient. Minnesotans generally seem eager to show off their two major cities and the state to visitors. Businesses enthusiastically opened their doors to demonstrate the best qualities of their city. Despite being generally considered a blue state, with Democratic mayors in both of the Twin Cities, hosting the RNC seems to have brought out a great degree of state pride among the locals and hence a determination to display their city for all to see. They appeared genuinely delighted to be considered politically relevant and relished the recent national attention on their governor, Tim Pawlenty. The local Star-Tribune, in fact, blasted Senator McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for vice-presidential nominee. Not least among their reasons appeared to be the fact that Gov. Pawlenty was passed over for the post.

The Main Event

The end result of Sarah Palin’s selection for the Republican ticket meant that the both conventions had historic moments that generated a great deal of excitement among the party faithful, media, and even casual observers. The culmination of the Democratic event was of course, Sen. Obama’s acceptance speech before a crowd of 80,000 or so at Invesco Field. Not only was this the historic moment where the an African-American accepted the presidential nomination of a major party—on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech—but the crowd and fanfare surrounding it were unlike anything a convention had seen before. The energy and excitement in the crowd was unparalleled compared to any moment at the Republican Convention. Indeed, the overall level of energy at the Democratic Convention was simply higher—Denver convention-goers packed the Pepsi Center, with lines gathered in the hallway for prime seating during the keynote speeches.

Although the Republican attendees failed to pack the arena to the same degree, there were two key moments that generated comparable enthusiasm: Gov. Palin’s speech and the climax of Sen. McCain’s acceptance address. On Wednesday evening, Rudy Giuliani whipped the crowd into a frenzy for the first time all week. His speech ran long and forced the organizers to skip the introductory video of Gov. Palin, so instead she entered the stage with the crowd still on their feet. That moment was the most energy the XCel Center would feel all week. The final moment of excitement occurred at the end of the Convention, when John McCain told his personal story and urged the crowd to their feet. In the end, the most significant aspect of both conventions was the fact that the party bases left energized, and in a contest that today is too close to call, that extra energy might make all the difference.

Michael Baudinet is the Executive Assistant to the Director at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and a special contributor to the Crystal Ball. He can be reached via email at