RNC Protesters: The Voice Of The People, Or Pawns In The Media Game?

One widely reported scuffle can tarnish a party's image.

You're a producer for the local news. Which footage would you use to open your daily report on the Republican convention: a) a rousing speech inside the convention hall; b) thousands of peaceful protestors milling about outside; or c) a handful of violent (but entertaining) protestors scuffling with police?

If you want to keep viewers from flipping the channel, you'll probably choose the last option — which explains why many Democrats are more concerned about what happens outside the convention hall this week than in it. If media coverage of the convention focuses disproportionately on the most violent, radical or unconventional protestors, those figures could become the public face of John Kerry and the Democratic Party.

It's happened before. In 1968, there was a war in a distant country (Vietnam) that was not going as well as predicted. That year, the frustrations of anti-war activists exploded outside the Democratic convention in Chicago and, for an entire week, demonstrators clashed with police while television cameras ate up the violent footage. Hundreds of protestors were arrested and several times that number were injured. Although the Chicago police were later judged to be largely at fault, it was awful PR for the Democratic Party. When Republican Richard Nixon prevailed over Hubert Humphrey that November, the deciding votes in the close election might have been cast by voters dismayed by what happened in Chicago.

More recently, the "anti-globalization" movement has been hampered by its association with some unruly behavior, most memorably at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Although most of the Seattle protestors were peaceful, a handful smashed the windows of McDonald's and Starbucks locations and fought with police. Subsequent anti-globalization protests have also been plagued by violence, again instigated by small numbers of people, and as a result, the movement has had difficulty establishing itself as deserving of serious attention.

While the protests around the RNC have largely been peaceful thus far (see "Enormous — But Peaceful — Crowd Rallies Against President Bush in New York"), Republicans may be hoping for some headline-grabbing ruckus this week. Party Chairman Ed Gillespie and other Republican strategists have been trying to reinforce the connection between the protestors and the Democrats in the minds of voters. For example, Gillespie recently stated, "The line between the official Democratic Party and labor protesters, environmental protesters and anti-war protesters is fairly blurry…" Expect that line to be further blurred if any of the rumors of protestor-sponsored convention mayhem come to pass.

This naturally worries Democrats like Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Although he may honestly not want to discourage dissent, he also doesn't want to be tarred with its excesses. It's a fine line to walk. Democrats pride themselves on their appreciation of diversity, but McAuliffe may wonder how the image of a crazed protestor setting dumpsters on fire and breaking shop windows would play in the somewhat conservative swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri. He'd probably rather not risk the association, which is why he's tried to distance his party from the protestors in recent weeks: "We can't control thousands of people who want to protest the Bush administration. They're there solely because of the failed presidency of George Bush."

On the other hand, McAuliffe doesn't want to discourage any peaceful demonstrations that could be politically beneficial to Democrats by providing an easy counter story to what is being said in the convention hall. After all, any time spent interviewing a protestor means less airtime for Republicans. So as the convention moves through the week, there may be an unusual political dynamic at work, at least among cynical political strategists from both parties. While Democrats hope for low-key and well-behaved protestors, Republicans will hope for some wild-eyed Bush-bashing ... as long as the television cameras are rolling.