By Bonnie Wicklund
"The Sheehan effect," is how New York Magazine described Michael Sheehan's success in helping politicians, celebrities and CEO's communicate in the media, WSDC President Jane Merkin noted, in her introduction of the luncheon speaker.
Sheehan, who has been working as a consultant and media coach since 1988, presented a fascinating history and analysis of presidential conventions and debates since the 1950's, illustrating his points with telling video clips.
In the early years of television, conventions were just big pageants where not much happened, Sheehan said. Then came 1968, when the Democrats "provided intense drama," such as John Chancellor being arrested on camera during the convention. This spoiled the media, and they came to expect dramatic happenings. In 1972, when the presidential candidate's acceptance speech got delayed for procedural reasons, until 2:30 AM, the media reaction was furious; subsequently, the media began to influence how conventions unfolded.
The keynote speech provided the next big impact in 1984, which Sheehan dubbed "a star is born" moment, showing excerpts from Mario Cuomo's forceful address. From then on, every aspiring Democrat wanted to be the keynote speaker, but in truth there have probably been more catastrophes than successes, he asserted. In 1988, Bill Clinton got his loudest and longest applause when he finally said "In closing...." at the end of his typically long-winded speech.
By 1992 the television networks began to cut back drastically on the coverage of conventions: from 9 to 11 PM became the hard rule. They demanded "better TV." Thus Governor Clinton began his acceptance of the nomination in New York City with a walk through Macy's. In 1996, special guests were introduced, in this case Christopher Reeves and Jim Brady, taking his first public steps while recovering from gunshot wounds. In 2008 Barack Obama accepted the nomination not in a convention hall but in a football stadium in Denver before an audience of 60,000. Finally, Sheehan noted, conventions are expensive, and partly for this reason the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, this year will be three days rather than four.
In the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, between Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy, the winner was said to be the Democrat by those who watched on television, while the radio audience awarded the contest to Nixon--a classic case of looks and style over substance, according to conventional wisdom. A more recent analysis, according to Sheehan, pointed out that the television audience in those days tended to be younger and more urban, while those who didn't yet have televisions, the radio audience, were generally older and rural, by implication probably more conservative.
Over the years, the debates have provided opportunities as well as risks for would-be presidents. The audience is always looking for a "gaffe," like Gerald Ford's disastrous proclamation in 1976 that there is "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Or 'the sound bite," as when Ronald Reagan repeatedly chided Jimmy Carter, "There you go again!" Or "the moment," such as Dan Quayle provided in the 1988 vice-presidential debate, when he proclaimed that he had "just as much experience as John Kennedy when he came to the Senate." Lloyd Benson's comeback--"you are no Jack Kennedy"-- is considered a game changing moment in the history of the debates.
In 1992 a new format was introduced to the debates: the town hall set-up, allowing candidates to interact with the audience as well as each other. Further ratcheting up the pressure on candidates, in 1996 the networks introduced the snap poll, predicting the winner immediately after the debate, or even as it was still in progress. In the 2000 Gore versus Bush debate, "we were bitten badly," noted Sheehan. Focus groups immediately after the debate proclaimed Gore the winner, but the next day Republicans hammered away at the Vice President with such effective counter-spin that eventually polling had Gore losing by 12 points. CNN's use of the split-screen in 2004, showing both candidates simultaneously, revealed George Bush looking "testy" while John Kerry was speaking. As a result, said Sheehan, he stresses "demeanor evidence" when rehearsing candidates for debates, keeping the camera on them the entire time, even when they are not speaking.
Regarding the upcoming election, Sheehan said that Mitt Romney might have a slight advantage in the debates in that he has had lots of recent practice in the primary debates, so President Obama will need to "get back in shape." However, he went on, Romney did not always do well in the debates, so instead of worrying about what the opponent will say, we should concentrate on what the Democratic agenda is, on what we want to get across.