Posted by: George | August 26, 2012

Convention Acceptance Speeches: A Primer

The Republican National Convention begins on Monday, maybe Tuesday due to Hurricane Isaac’s potential path toward Tampa, and the Democratic National Convention will soon follow.  Many of us, regardless of our political affiliation, will watch the acceptance speeches of both Romney and Obama. When we watch the acceptance speech of the other side, it will be more like watching All-Star Wrestling. We will boo and hiss and feel morally superior. When we watch the acceptance speech of our side, it will be more like church. We will say “Amen” and feel among the chosen people.

But there is another way to watch the acceptance speeches. Paying attention to the rhetoric can be more fascinating than reacting to the message of the moment. Here is a short primer, some hints for moving beyond the message to an appreciation of how the message is crafted.

Acceptance speeches, which have been aired on radio since 1924 and television since 1940, present a difficult rhetorical situation for speakers. The candidates will, in the most immediate sense, be speaking to the audience in the hall, the delegates to the convention. They will need to energize this base. They will also, however, speak to the extended audience listening on radio or watching on television. When speaking to the extended audience, the candidate will attempt to win over the comparatively small number of independents who will determine the outcome of the election.

The messages to the two audiences are often at odds, which is what makes writing a convention acceptance speech so difficult. Sometimes, the candidate will risk the disapproval of the immediate audience (the delegates) to gain the approval of the extended audience (those following the speech via mass media).

At his acceptance speech during the 1980 Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan said: “And, the time is now to redeem promises once made to the American people by another candidate, in another time and at another place.” After citing a long quote about reducing the costs of government, Reagan continued: “So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in July 1932.” The hall, which had been cheering after almost every sentence, fell into dead silence. While the statement caused confusion in the hall, it was a brilliant attempt to bring some Democrats over to the Republican party, and it was followed by a long line of Republicans who quoted John F. Kennedy. That is, until Dan Quayle tried to invoke Kennedy in 1988, and Lloyd Bentsen replied, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

The convention acceptance speech officially marks the end of the primary (candidates appealing to their base) and the beginning of the general election (candidates appealing to independents). It is, in the words of Romney’s campaign manager, the etch-a-sketch moment where the candidate reshapes his (so far, it has been “his”) message for a broader audience.

As an interesting exercise, keep a sheet of paper next to you during each of the acceptance speeches. Write down the major themes or issues that each candidate covers. Then, compare the two lists. I think you will find that both candidates will mention the same basic themes. We can, with a fair amount of accuracy, generate a list of those themes or issues in advance: the national debt, taxes, jobs, the declining middle class, immigration, and respect for women. Equally interesting, each candidate’s take on these themes or issues will be fairly consistent.  Why? Because both candidates will be appealing to the moderate middle, the voters who have not yet decided or the voters who might be willing to change their minds.

So, why will the two speeches seem so different? This will partially be a result of differing ideologies. Both candidates will speak about jobs. Obama will speak more about the role of government in creating jobs, and Romney will speak more about the role of businesses in creating jobs. Obama will speak more about helping those in need, and Romney will speak more able individual iniative. Etc.

(A little aside here: we can describe the ideology of each political party in a single sentence. The Democrats say, “Please, like me.” The Republicans say, “Don’t take my stuff.” The Libertarians say, “Let me alone.” Think about it.)

The speeches will also seem different because each candidate will attempt to fit these common issues into a different narrative. For an acceptance speech to work, that narrative needs myth resonance, and it needs to be supported by the candidate’s life story (often presented in a memoir published as the candidate was preparing to run), all of the other speeches given at the convention, and the now mandiatory biographical video of the candidate’s life story.

You will hear commentators (the reporters at the convention) speak about narrative. You will probably not hear them speak about what I am calling mythic resonance. If, however, you listen carefully, you will hear not just a narrative but a also myth. To be effective as the core of an acceptance speech (as well as core of the political speeches that will follow during the campaign) the narrative needs to be an archetype (Carl Jung’s word for a universal mythic theme) as well as a mytheme (Claude Lévy-Strauss’s word for the central substance of a mythic pattern). To paraphrase, the candidate should be able to convey a broad mythic narrative in a single sentence, or, better still, a single word.

Four years ago, Obama’s mytheme was the American Dream: From humble beginnings, the individual achieves the promise of America through hard work, initiative, and persistence. During his acceptance speech, Obama was able to tell the story of his immigrant father, his mother who struggled to support his family, and his hard work to succeed in school. His key word was “promise.”

McCain drew upon the mytheme of the hero: The hero saves an endangered land from outside forces. McCain spoke of his family’s military service to the country, his hardships as a prisoner of war, and his desire to protect America. In the last minute of his speech, McCain spoke the word “fight” on nine occasions.

Obama won the election. I would argue that he won, in large part, because his mytheme better expressed the fears and anxieties of most Americans.



  1. Interesting post. Any predictions on the mythemes and key words for each this time around?


    • We”ll see. As I was watching Morning Joe this am, some Republican operatives were saying that everything Romney touched was a success. This kind of sounds like the Midas myth. If you remember, things didn’t turn out so well for Midas.


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