Reporting From Denver: Pessimism

Garrett Graff is in Denver all this week, reporting live from the Democratic National Convention. Keep checking back in for his coverage.

By: Garrett M. Graff

The Republican convention next week in Minneapolis is supposed to be the pessimistic convention: President Bush has approval ratings stuck in the mid-20s, many of the top-tier Senate candidates are staying home either to campaign or to distance themselves from the party’s brand, and nearly everyone expects the Republicans to lose seats in Congress in November. So why is it that everything so far at the Democratic convention seems infused with just a hint of dread?

The first night’s speaking program, despite its emotional highlights from Ted Kennedy and the Obama children, is being seen as a waste of airtime, at least in terms of firing up voters and introducing Barack Obama to the country. Throughout the convention so far, there seems to be no overall governing narrative, little sense in the first two days that the party is doing what it must to narrow the knowledge gap about the Obamas: Who is Barack, this wunderkind who appeared to the nation just four years ago? What’s his background like? What are his values like? Can he connect with me? Can he feel my pain?

Last night’s major speakers, Mark Warner and Hillary Clinton, did little to soothe faithful’s fears. Warner, who has to run a conservative and careful Senate race to win Virginia, didn’t throw the red meat that would have gotten the Democrats fired up. Hillary did such a great job with her speech that she only elicited some buyer’s remorse from convention-goers who wished she’d campaigned as well as she spoke last night. There’s much lingering unease about the end of the primary season this spring, when late-breaking voters chose Hillary over Obama even as it became clear he mathematically had to win and she had to lose.

Talk to those on the ground in battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and there’s a fear that the fall’s campaign will be much tougher than party leaders are willing to admit right now. Blue-collar voters are very unsure about Obama. Convention-goers have been talking about the focus groups being conducted and unveiled by pollsters like Frank Luntz and Peter Hart at a convention that shows voters respecting Obama but not understanding him—a big problem for those he’s trying to win over.

There’s much in the Democrats’ favor this fall—a likely financial advantage, poor ratings for the GOP brand after eight years of President Bush, and a good map in terms of Senate and House seats—but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that in Denver Democrats aren’t as optimistic as you might expect. At breakfast today, I heard someone at a nearby table almost whisper: “I’m thinking for the first time that Obama could lose.” That’s the fear that underlies so much of the Democratic fervor this week: What if we’re blowing the opportunity to reintroduce Obama and make him connect with regular voters? What if we’re heading into an election with a candidate who just can’t win?

Garrett Graff is in Denver all this week, reporting from the Democratic National Convention. Head here for his coverage of parties, people, politics and more.