It's fashionable to say that conventions don't matter. And it's true that it's been a generation and a half since the last time there was genuine drama in real time (that was 1980 in Detroit, with its near-miss with the Reagan-Ford "dream ticket").
They do matter, though. Maybe not in the way Detroit did, or Chicago in 1968 did, or Los Angeles in 1960 did. But impressions are created amid confetti and cable coverage that reach political civilians (another way of describing normal Americans) that, together with the autumn debates, tend to clarify -- and even decide -- presidential elections.
Which is why Republicans should be particularly glum this weekend. The further Democrats progressed into their convention last week in Charlotte, N.C., the more glaring the shortcomings of the previous week's GOP convention became. By the time the last of the confetti fell on the Democratic convention floor, it became frustratingly clear that the most compelling speaker in Tampa, Fla., had been Clint Eastwood's chair.
These sort of observations that I make in the middle of a convention swoon always drive campaign surrogates and party hacks crazy. When I dismissed John Kerry's 2004 acceptance speech as rushed and sweaty, the crowd booed angrily and a fellow journalist threatened to climb across the table and punch me. Cooler heads would prevail the next morning when legendary Boston Globe writer Tom Oliphant wrote the same thing in his column.
A few months later, Republicans like me struggled through one of the worst debate performances since James Stockdale famously asked who and where he was. George W. Bush's 2004 performance wasn't quite as bad as Ross Perot's running mate in 1992, but Bush seemed at a loss for words during the first round of questions and then even more flummoxed after he asked for extra time.
With the added time, the president jutted his shoulder, blinked his eyes rapidly and cocked his head before saying "It's hard ... it's hard." Kerry won that first debate going away. I said so on air immediately following the debate and advised Bush to stay home for the final two debates if he could do no better. According to a top campaign official, Laura Bush gave her chastened husband similar advice that same night.
Many of those same Republicans are in no mood to hear how badly their party was outperformed by the Democrats last week during the prime-time performances that millions of Americans watched. Michelle Obama connected her family to the American dream in a way neither campaign has managed all year. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro offered a joyous takedown of Mitt Romney while wearing a smile as wide as the West Texas sky. And Bill Clinton. Oh, my. Convention speeches rarely reach that level.
If there was any letdown last week, it was that Barack Obama's speech sounded recycled at times and resembled a State of the Union address more than a soaring acceptance speech for president.
But while Obama said nothing new, he said it much better than when Romney said nothing in Tampa. And you could tell by the boisterous reaction of Democratic delegates who left the arena Thursday night looking fired up and ready to go. Maybe there seemed to be such a disparity between the two conventions because the Republican Party has never been the least bit excited about its nominee. Or maybe it's because Democrats were simply blessed with a deeper bench of political athletes in 2012. But whatever the reason, Republicans were lapped by their rivals and may ultimately pay in November for botching Romney's debut.
And that means that these conventions will have mattered -- a lot.
Joe Scarborough, a guest columnist for Politico, hosts "Morning Joe" on MSNBC and represented Florida's 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001.