What a difference four years make. I remember watching Michael Flynn’s speech at the 2016 Republican convention and thinking “My God, did no one help him craft or practice a speech?”

Until he got to the infamous “lock her up” refrain, Flynn was literally lost, fumbling for words, and I was angry at the confab’s organizers for putting him in such a position. There was none of that this week. All teleprompters were working and most words packed a punch.

Just before the Democratic convention kicked off two weeks ago, I asked whether the nominating events for either party holds every four years are even “real” anymore.

It wasn’t the post-COVID reality of taped sessions where speakers addressed empty halls I was talking about. It was the preordained conclusions that super-delegates assure for Democrats and brass-knuckle bullying for Republicans. They are, after all, just shows.

But there were plenty of real and powerful moments over the past four days. The troika that preceded President Trump Thursday night — the parents of the slain humanitarian worker Kayla Mueller, the widow of fallen retired police Captain David Dorn, and convicted drug trafficker Alice Marie Johnson, whom Trump granted clemency in 2018 —shared stories of human suffering uplifted by hope and resolve. By the time Trump the Elder spoke, it almost didn’t matter what he said. Nonetheless, he stuck to his script.

The biggest difference between the back-to-back conventions I noticed was the reliance of the Republicans on ‘ordinary’ people to reflect their message. Yes, it’s a political trope, but they pulled it off well.

The convention that opened without Eva Longoria seemed less air-brushed even if some bits, like Kimberly Guilfoyle’s, were over-acted. My pink polo shirt didn’t get worn much this summer as a direct response to M4-waving St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey who, together with his charming wife, schooled us all on law and order.

So there were weird moments to be sure, but despite that, the Republicans offered a clear message and an orchestrated softening of Trump.

Television, Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels once mused, is a “beautiful lie.” Did either the Republicans or the Democrats actually just hold up mirrors to reflect an authentic America for everyone to see?

The answer to that is, of course, subjective. Either side can accuse the other of gas-lighting, but rarely do conventions change anyone’s mind. Instead, their job is to rally the troops.

This year, perhaps more than any other, the perception of real matters a great deal. This is convenient for the president, because the softening of his persona also relies on the attraction of “real.”

The flashes of real Trump in his keynote address last night came when he went off-script and said plainly “Joe Biden is weak.” (The veracity of that claim depends entirely on how you define strong.) In a sense, the Republican convention was about contextualizing real people, and the real Trump. What about the real deal?

Democrats said little to nothing in their convention either about China or the continuing chaos and violence in many American cities. This is understandable because their positions on both issues are so nuanced that they are quickly forgotten, and these are not positive issues for them.

The repeated claim that the other side doesn't love America as much as we do was off-putting. This is a riff on Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous 1980 “Blame America First” speech.

Yes, there are elements of truth to it, but there is also an argument which, carried to its extreme, casts your opponent as "the other" not unlike the escalating rhetoric in pre-genocidal societies.

Meanwhile, the long-standing charge of racism that Democrats have leveled at Trump since day one was undercut by the fact the Republicans highlighted more African-American faces and voices in their convention than perhaps ever before. So on points, it’s fair to assume the Republicans may have gained ground this week.

Still, the only “real” that matters in politics is how voters feel on the morning of the first Tuesday in November. Everything else is just projection. I would bet Republicans got a bigger bounce out of their convention than the Democrats did theirs, but in several weeks none of this will matter much. Assuming the two sides are now closer to even than at any point so far, the time has come for Joe Biden to come out of the basement.

Match point: Democrats.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.