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U.S. Election 2016

Donald Trump had his big moment on the stage in Cleveland last week. Now, it's Hillary Clinton's turn in Philadelphia. Here are the speeches from the last 40 years that Ms. Clinton should use as her template

Bill Clinton, also seen on the large screen behind him, raises his fist in victory after giving his acceptance speech for his party's nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York City on July 16, 1992.

Bill Clinton raises his fist in victory after giving his acceptance speech for his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in New York City in 1992. Hillary Clinton should use the 1992 speech as a template for Thursday night, says one expert.


It is the arguably most important political speech of a presidential candidate's life.

Standing before their political party's conventions and millions of TV viewers, they will need to weigh carefully their words and delivery during their presidential nomination acceptance speeches. Donald Trump had his turn. Now, the moment belong's to Hillary Clinton.

Much is at stake: a strong acceptance speech can pay off with a bump in the polls and helps frame the candidates and general election themes. But there is another reason why acceptance speeches are so purposeful and important, explains Tammy Vigil, assistant professor of communication at Boston University.

"For me, they always matter because they are part of a bigger discussion of who we are and where we're moving as a people. So as part of a national dialogue, they always matter," said Prof. Vigil.

Her recent book, Connecting with Constituents: Identification Building and Blocking in Contemporary National Convention Addresses, is a detailed study of speeches delivered at political conventions going back to 1980.

As an exercise, we asked her to choose which presidential nomination acceptance speeches Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton should use as their templates at the Republican and Democratic conventions – and to weigh in on whether the candidates are likely to follow those templates.

The verdict on Mr. Trump's Cleveland speech can be read below. But let's start with Ms. Clinton. She steps on to the stage in Philadelphia tonight.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are to speak to their party conventions before launching in to an ugly battle for the White House.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton prepare for the ugly general election battle that will follow the political coventions.

AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's speech template: Bill Clinton, 1992; Barack Obama, 2008

The presumptive Democratic nominee's goal in her acceptance speech in Philadelphia next week should be twofold: mine her personal history and play up the historic nature of her candidacy, argues Prof. Vigil, and in order to achieve that, Ms. Clinton ought to mesh the approach of her husband, Bill Clinton, from 24 years ago and Barack Obama from eight years earlier.

"I think she needs to tell her story, so that people can actually understand her and have a different frame for interpreting her and her actions and motivations – because right now she's been framed so heavily as a power-hungry woman who will do anything to get elected," said Prof. Vigil.

"So there's a lot missing about the philanthropic stuff she used to do, the work with children, the work with abused women," she added.

Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential acceptance wove a modernized version of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" – which Mr. Clinton called the "New Covenant" – with a powerful personal story. His father died months before he was born. To those who listened to his speech, this was no silver-spoon politician. His humble roots felt like something people could relate to, said Prof. Vigil.

The section of the speech that begins with never having met his father – moving through the struggles of his working mother and the values he learned from his grandfather who ran a country store – is compelling and addresses a key question facing all presidential candidate: Why should voters trust them? The answer, in part at least, rests in personal history.

Bill Clinton: ‘You want to know where I get my fighting spirit?’

Prof. Vigil describes this kind of "identification building" as a key element of presidential acceptance speeches. But for Ms. Clinton being personal carries a risk because it is framed as a feminine characteristic and what voters really want are some of the masculine qualities associated with being president – such as assertiveness, she explains.

"It's really hard being a woman; you can't focus on being womanly too much but you still have to be a woman because that's what you are. So there's a weird balance that she's going to have to strike on how can she show her toughness, her resiliency, her assertiveness while also being personable, approachable, and create a relationship with the audience," said Prof. Vigil.

Ms. Clinton can also take a page from Barack Obama's 2008 speech – which pointed to the historic nature of his candidacy without being overt.

"What Obama didn't do was say, 'Hey, vote for me because I'm the black guy.' So she can't say, 'Hey, vote for me because I'm the woman.' But what she can do is acknowledge some of the history, some of the battles, some of the fights that got her to where she is now. Not her battles particularly, but the long historic battle," said Prof. Vigil.

The kind of personal detail Prof. Vigil points to is how Ms. Clinton's mother was born in a country that did not allow women to vote. "It's not that the information is hidden but she hasn't really played up her back story in the way most candidates would," she said.

Barack Obama: ‘America, we cannot turn back’

Will Hillary Clinton follow the speech template?

The answer will become apparent when Ms. Clinton speaks on July 28 at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. But the signs point to deep misgivings about being so personal before a large national audience.

The Ms. Clinton the world is so accustomed to is a master of policies and ideas.

The former First Lady, senator and secretary of state has the perfect resume. What she may not realize is that while her credentials may be solid, that does not mean people like her, explains Prof. Vigil.

"Some people are just not comfortable talking about personal stuff in a public forum and if she was raised in a household where you don't brag about yourself, you don't talk about your personal self out in the world, then it might harder for her to do that," she said.

The verdict: What kind of speech did Clinton end up giving?

In many ways, she delivered the speech she should have, according to Prof. Vigil.

She did tick all the boxes I thought she needed to, although it is hard to overcome decades of a particular public persona with one speech. She blended humour and personality with some policy previews.
The critiques about lack of policy detail I saw afterward were interesting. If she talks policy she is too much of a "wonk." But if she doesn't, she's avoiding sharing detailed plans. The truth is, most people don't really want a lot of policy outlining in an acceptance speech no matter what they claim. That stuff should come in the general campaign speeches...

Trump's speech template: Ronald Reagan, 1980

There is a lesson in Ronald Reagan's acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention: an optimistic vision and broad appeal to national unity at a time of economic anxiety can move voters.

His Democratic opponent and presidential incumbent, Jimmy Carter, presented a vision of the future in which the U.S. would need to live within its means, explains Prof. Vigil. A global energy crisis meant long lines at gas stations, increasing joblessness and worries about the future.

"Reagan comes on the scene and says, 'We're great, we're fantastic. America is the world leader in everything.' So it's kind of like the 'Make American Great Again' parallel with Trump now," said Prof. Vigil. "The optimistic approach really caught fire and [Reagan] got a lot of support from members of both parties," she added.

The parallels in the language used today by Mr. Trump and 36 years ago at the convention in Detroit are striking.

For Mr. Reagan, it proved a winning strategy and the birth of the Reagan Democrats – the disaffected voters struggling during a time of economic upheaval and manufacturing decline in the country's Rust Belt states. They abandoned the Democratic Party and hitched their future to the Reagan train.

In 2016, Donald Trump is presented with a similar opportunity. The Democratic Party has emerged from a bitter nominating contest. "With so many people upset with the Hillary-Bernie [Sanders] fight and not really satisfied with the Democrats, that could be an appeal he could make effectively," said Prof. Vigil.

Ronald Reagan: ‘I want my candidacy to unify our country’

Both the Republican nominees of today and 1980 channel important themes of America's greatness and exceptionalism. But there is an important difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Reagan, according to Prof. Vigil.

"If you read or listen to the Reagan speech, Reagan's America is diverse. Trump's America is a throwback to old white guys in charge, women having the dinner on the table at five, forget about any person of colour," she said.

"So Trump's great America is a throwback to really oppressive times for a very large number of people. So the appeal is extremely narrow in terms of what he considers greatness," she added.

The Reagan vision is more encompassing – and jars with modern Republican rhetoric on immigration. He talks about the American spirit "ready to blaze in to life" and embodied in the masses that strove to reach the United States.

"I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth who came here in search of freedom," said Reagan.

Will Donald Trump follow the speech template?

The short answer is: unlikely, according to Prof. Vigil.

Mr. Trump lacks the discipline – and therefore the presidential persona – of his Republican predecessors. No one was more scripted than trained actor Ronald Reagan.

"There is the persona of the Hollywood showy kind of guy, but when it came down to it he stuck to the script and delivered it extremely well," she said. "It doesn't mean that it was fake, it just meant that he had a talent and a skill and [acting] experience that helped him to deliver it in a way that people could relate to," she added.

The verdict: What kind of speech did Trump end up giving?

Not the one Prof. Vigil had in mind, as it turns out:

Trump clearly did not give a speech with the optimism or unity building of Reagan, although many people seemed to want him to. His rather dark address was much less hope filled than pretty much any contemporary nomination acceptance address.
You almost have to go back to Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican candidate, to get such a negative speech, but even his address provided a more optimistic view of things (and that was during the Great Depression) and more concrete ideas for improvement.