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How Main Street Makes It Into Political Conventions

Volunteers stage recently inflated balloons that will be dropped from the ceiling during the Republican National Convention as preparations continue at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 24, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
Win McNamee | Getty Images
Volunteers stage recently inflated balloons that will be dropped from the ceiling during the Republican National Convention as preparations continue at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 24, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.

Though the long procession of speakers at the national party conventions may become a blurry drone for all but the most politically obsessed TV viewers, the chosen few dozen people to grace the stage are carefully selected characters in a well-crafted story defined by symbolism, themes and diversity.

Many of the players and parts are obvious: local leaders, governors and members of Congress, CEOs, friends of the candidate, family members — a fine balance of race, gender, age and geography.

What stands out in that Facebookesque story line, however, are the Main Street Americans, the everyday people making cameo appearances.

"It's like writing a novel: What's the narrative; what's the plot line? Then you bring in your casting experts and pick the people," said Randy Roberts, a Purdue University professor of popular culture, who follows elections. "They pick them to create a narrative that they want to tell."

They, of course, are the party's national committee, the convention team and the candidate's advisers.

"The campaigns make the final decisions," said Republican strategist Trey Hardin of Vox Global, a public affairs and strategic communications firm.

And, yes, that can include the presidential candidate, too.

The "real person" touch is widely thought to have originated with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. What started as a State of the Union address element was later expanded to serve the conventions, said Tony Fratto, an adviser to President George W. Bush and now managing partner at Hamilton Place Strategies.

The speakers are part of the parties' brand. "You sell it with real people, a concrete example," said Roberts.

This year only a few speakers fit the Main Street American part. "Maybe it was overdone in the past," said Fratto, but their brand value is central and powerful.

Steven Cohen
Steven Cohen

For the GOP, there's Steve Cohen, a small businessman in Ohio, whose manufacturing plant was a campaign stop for Mitt Romney in 2011, well before the former Massachusetts governor became the party's candidate.

He spoke Wednesday night after Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, addressing the needs of small business, the viability of American manufacturing and competition of the global economy.

In an interview with CNBC.com, Cohen wouldn't say whether he was picked by Romney himself, but did say he and his wife had a long conversation with the candidate — after which Cohen concluded there were "many similarities" between the two.

Cohen has also taken part in several local party events.

"American companies can absolutely compete abroad," said Cohen, whose Screen Machine Industries makes equipment used in construction and mining and is aggressively trying to expand its export business.

Cohen is both an American success story, analysts said, and a response to the argument that Romney's work in private equity resulted in the destruction and offshoring of American jobs.

The Democrats don't have a "little guy" business success story. They do, however, have entrepreneurial CEOs who built large publicly traded companies, Carmaxand Costco. (The GOP has a co-founder of Staples.)

The GOP wouldn't comment on its list of speakers, but political observers say both parties are trying to appeal to a diverse group of voters.

"I don’t think they (the Democrats) have a positive narrative," said Fratto, who expects the GOP convention to yield "multiple messages about jobs."

When asked about the guest lineup, Democratic Party national press secretary Melanie Roussell said in a statement: "This convention will define the election as a choice between two very different paths for our nation: an economy built to last for middle class Americans or a return to the failed policies of budget-busting tax breaks for the wealthy, outsourcing and risky financial deals. Every speaker was chosen for how they can personally define that choice."

While the GOP may be on the jobs offensive, the Democrats have a powerful one-two punch planned for the Republicans, playing to a core Obama voter base — women — and a sore spot for the opposition.

Sandra Fluke
Sandra Fluke


Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke will speak, presumably following up on her Capitol Hill appearance where she expressed support for President Barack Obama's policy requiring most companies to provide free birth control, which provoked a rant about virtuous behavior from conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

For some, Fluke may also evoke the uproar following Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape." (He later apologized.)

"There's no question the Democrats have been given sort of a gift [with Fluke], and they are definitely appealing to women, while they are promoting the idea that the GOP is hostile to women," said Fratto. "The opportunity is there for them."

In addition to Fluke, Lilly Ledbetter, who successfully sued her employerfor paying her less than male counterparts, is back following her 2008 convention appearance.

The two women "speak to the issue of having a voice, activism; don't be discriminated upon," said Hank Boyd, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's business school. "It brings them back to 2008; they're trying to capture some of that."

Janine Turner
Janine Turner

The Republicans put up their own working woman, so to speak — Janine Turner, co-star of the 1990s TV show "Northern Exposure" who's now a conservative radio talk show host. On Tuesday evening, Turner said Obama was bad for free enterprise and the American dream — core GOP messages.

Though it's unclear how Turner now plays on a national level, her appearance very likely fulfilled the primary goal of the modern political convention.

"Conventions serve one primary purpose—and it's [an] internalone," said Hardin, the GOP campaign veteran. "Rev up the base and unite the party."

Follow me on Twitter @albertbozzo

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