July 18, 2016
The convention is finally here. The last vestiges of the #NeverTrump movement were stomped out last week, so there won’t be the brokered/contested convention political junkies have dreamed of for decades. Even Bill Kristol is about ready to concede Donald Trump will actually become the nominee.
The choosing of Mike Pence takes any VP drama off the table. There were thoughts some delegates would attempt to throw their weight around on that pick, but the goal was to force Trump into picking a Pence-like person. Mission already accomplished. While it’s very possible he’ll give a solid and effective speech on Wednesday, it won’t have 2008 Sarah Palin levels of anticipation.
Once conventions stopped being about choosing candidates and became simply a four day advertisement for the party/ticket, interest began to wane. Like almost everything on TV except the NFL, ratings have consistently dropped for decades. Trump has verbalized his desire to make his coronation more interesting than his immediate predecessors. For weeks he spoke of better, more interesting convention speakers.
We get Scott Baio. Because Tim Tebow didn’t want to participate. The “celebrity” speeches are at a minimum. It’s unlikely any are as memorable as Clint Eastwood’s dialogue with a chair in 2012. That’s probably a plus for Trump. A long list of politicos are staying away, including Ohio Governor John Kasich. You wouldn’t think it possible to skip a convention in your home state in a year you ran for president, but he’s giving it a shot.
Kasich is planning on being in town and will likely appear on TV more than once, just not in any official role with the RNC or convention. Marco Rubio will address the crowd via video. The Bush family is staying as far away as possible. Mitt Romney is on strike. Nikki Haley, Ben Sasse, and other members of Team 2020/2024 will stay away.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of politicians to go around. Chris Christie and Ben Carson are representing the candidates Trump vanquished who quickly endorsed him after dropping out. Ted Cruz and Scott Walker are participating without endorsing, making sure to get a little bit of air time to prep for next time. It’s unlikely either have given up on their White House dreams, especially Cruz.
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas are taking advantage of the vacuum to build a place for themselves in the upper rung of future GOP prospects. It’s premature to attempt to picture what the party will look like a year from now, let alone four to eight, but each are capable of bridging the gap between the Trump, Cruz, and establishment wings of the party.
They may say nothing of import, get time slots when most Americans aren’t watching, and continue on their way as freshman senators in a crowded generation of ambitious Republicans. Or the convention may serve as a breakout. Expecting one to duplicate the impact of Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention is pushing it, but stars are created from dynamic warm up acts.
Then there’s Paul Ryan. He’s not a headliner on the day he speaks. He’s also not a particularly memorable orator. Odds are heavily in favor of his speech being a minor footnote. If he says anything memorable, we’ll notice. If not, when the convention ends, he goes back to running his separate campaign to keep the House in Republican hands.
Wednesday is shaping up as an interesting contrast between the guy Trump picked (Pence) and one he didn’t (Newt Gingrich.) While Christie is relegated to afterthought placement on Tuesday, likely not in a primetime spot, Newt gets elevated billing on his night, listed along with Pence as a primary speaker.
Christie has remained quiet since being passed over. Gingrich has praised Pence and spent time explaining why Trump chose wisely. Draw your own conclusions. Either way, this allows Trump to have Newt do his bombastic best to appeal to voters who wish he’d wound up on the ticket, while having Pence act his role as the sober, responsible running mate.
Will people leave the evening wondering why Newt was passed over for a stiff, or thinking Pence is a winner? Expectations are relatively low for the Indiana governor. Most Americans know absolutely zero about him, and he’s not expected to show any dynamism. It’s his one opportunity to step out from Trump’s shadow. Apparently he’s thought of himself as a future president since his youth. This is the best shot he’ll get to lay the groundwork.
We’ve spent plenty of time discussing politicians, but it’s quite possible the only speakers many Americans will see are Trumps. No fewer than six are scheduled to talk, and nobody will be surprised if these are scheduled for maximum audience levels. Melania Trump is a Monday headliner. By the time The Donald gives his address on Thursday, all four of his adult children will have spoken.
It’s far from the first time children of the nominee have participated, but the extent to which the Trump family is front and center is as unprecedented as you think it is. The perception that nobody was interested in speaking at the convention is false. The list above is more than adequate. However, when Cruz is not a headliner and Eric Trump is, that’s an indication something is different.
His children received strong reviews throughout the primary process, especially Ivanka. There isn’t any polling on Trump the Next Generation, but I’d assume the offspring would handily outpoll their father. He’s hoping they frame him well, and I’d imagine they will. The only catch is possible/probable Trump fatigue.
I’ve buried the lede. All of the above is worth giving a few minutes of thought to, but the whole game is Trump’s acceptance speech. So far, he’s shown two distinct styles from behind a podium. The more common one is off the cuff, with a few notes and no formal structure. We’ve seen clips or even full addresses like this for the better part of a year. It’s the standard and most comfortable Trump form of communication, and works darn well when he’s preaching to the choir.
Then there’s Teleprompter Trump. He first showed up at the AIPAC convention in D.C. a few months ago, when the candidate decided he didn’t want to risk saying the wrong thing to an arena full of pro-Israel contributors. Son-in-law Jared Kushner helped him draft a more professional sounding address.
When Trump has a major address to make, he uses this format. It’s somewhat unsettling. The prepared speeches stick to the standard format of avoiding any words over two syllables unless absolutely necessary, so his language is mostly similar. He’ll throw in a quick aside or ad lib once in a while. Mostly it sounds really stilted and it’s clear he doesn’t prefer this format.
There’s no chance he gives his convention speech from a few scribbled notes he had in his jacket pocket, reading off random poll results and otherwise riffing for an hour or so. Teleprompter Trump is a little sad. He would get praise from some, as it’s more professional than his image, but not good enough if he really wants to make an impact.
Ideally, The Donald is practicing a third way, finding an ability to give a prepared speech that feels more like he’s winging it. A strong effort is the single easiest way for him to get a few more #NeverHillaryNeverTrump voters to turn into #NeverHillary. I’m not willing to offer any predictions about his effectiveness in doing so.
The final big variable is outside the convention hall. How many protests, by whom, and how violent? This won’t be Chicago in 1968. Cleveland doesn’t have an area the size of Grant Park, for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of protestors to congregate. Some chaos is very possible, but expectations are different.
Back then, there was no memory of a convention being disrupted in such a fashion. This time, there’s footage from Chicago all queued up to show on loop the minute something goes wrong. They’ll even give us a historical recap before anything happens. That was at a Democratic convention with a Democrat in the White House and a fight over the nomination. This is not that.
Most importantly, we’ve already seen violence at Trump events, and the past couple of weeks have brought an endless list of scary/depressing/devastating shootings and terror acts. While it’s possible something could happen that would go beyond the range of our imagination, it’s likely many of the things we’re picturing (short of a major terror attack) would get met with an exhausted shrug.
The range of violence in recent weeks will make it hard to put whatever may happen completely or even mostly on Trump’s shoulders. As the convention begins, the voting public is in a bad mood. Trump is trailing in the polls, if not by an insurmountable margin. He has four days to sell persuadable voters on being more the solution than the problem. Trump says he’s a master salesman. Now we find out for sure. If he’s going to close his final deal, he needs to leave Cleveland with a lead in the polls.