July 19, 2016
The first day/night of the Republican National Convention was charitably shaky. The average voter may not have noticed or heard about the delegate scrum during the day when #NeverTrump forces unsuccessfully fought to have a full roll call vote. Whatever.
Commentators spent plenty of time talking about rising star Joni Ernst getting stuck speaking to an empty hall after the networks cut away, while actor Scott Baio, last seen playing Chachi back in the 1980s, had a better audience. General Flynn sounded like the Republic was ending next Tuesday. Donald Trump called in to Bill O’Reilly’s show, forcing him to cut away from the mom of one of the Benghazi four, who was emotionally excoriating Hillary Clinton from the podium.
And then the plagiarism thing, which now overshadows the whole evening. Millions of voters who paid no attention to the convention, instead catching up on Netflix, or going through their DVR, are now only aware of this one event. In typical fashion, the campaign is not backing down, apologizing, or doing anything to admit fault.
This guarantees the issue will continue for a bit. We’ll find out on November 8th if you can win the presidency by having Melania Trump use parts of Michelle Obama’s speech, but it’s the latest Trump controversy to devour everything in it’s wake. Perhaps this is a low water mark, and Paul Manafort along with the rest of Team Trump will pull this together. Maybe Trump knocks his acceptance speech out of the park in front of an unexpectedly large audience.
Or Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan pointedly do their best not to mention Trump tonight. Newt Gingrich overshadows Mike Pence. Voters get fatigued by the time a fourth Trump offspring gives a speech. Does any of this matter? Are voters so locked in to their feelings about The Donald and Hillary Clinton that whether their conventions are successes, epic failures, or somewhere in between, the results won’t change much?
Normally, we look to polling to see how the conventions went. A pile of surveys were released in the last week or so. The Real Clear Politics average currently has Clinton 2.7% ahead of Trump nationally. If the two conventions end and we look up 7 to 10 days later when a new batch of polls are in, that would indicate how they did.
It’s the traditional measurement. If Trump is even or ahead, he had the better convention. If Hillary is up 5 to 7 points, she did. Otherwise it was a wash. It’s hard to argue with this, but it’s also an incomplete measure. In order to see if either candidate actually won anyone over, as opposed to just offending fewer voters than their opponent, we need to check their share of the overall vote.
There are two other choices, neither of whom will get the coverage Democrats and Republicans do during their conventions. Gary Johnson was nominated by the Libertarians in an under-the-radar fashion back in May. Dr. Jill Stein is the presumptive Green Party nominee, but I needed to google the convention dates (August 4-7 in case you want to catch parts on C-SPAN or stream it.)
Back in 1992, Bill Clinton used the Democratic Convention to leap incumbent George H.W. Bush and the convention-less Ross Perot. The Democrats put on a good show, the Republicans didn’t (Pat Buchanan was on at a better hour than Ronald Reagan), and Perot was on hiatus. Clinton never looked back.
As a result, the combined Clinton-Bush vote went up from before the convention to after. While Clinton took a few votes from Bush, more came from Perot or undecided. If either or both of the big party candidates this year have a good convention, it should show up in their combined share.
They’re starting from a very modest point. When voters are given all four options, Trump and Clinton combine for an average of 78.7%. Of the last 12 national surveys listed on Real Clear Politics, they combine for more than 80% of the vote once. There’s a big disparity in support for the two alternative candidates. Monmouth has them combining for 6% (Johnson 5, Stein 1), while CNN/ORC has them at 18% (Johnson 13, Stein 5.) The surveys were taken concurrently.
Some pollsters have voters choosing Johnson or Stein, others indicate voters prefer undecided/none of the above. It’s a question of language and methodology, but the overall reluctance to pick Trump or Clinton is unmistakable. When Perot grabbed almost 20% of the vote in 1992, it was after becoming a far more well known figure than Johnson or Stein.
He participated in all of the debates. Prior, he got as much free media as a candidate could get a quarter century ago. He used appearances on cable news networks (CNN, CNN, or CNN back then) more effectively than anyone in the pre-Trump era. When Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican William H. Taft combined for a measly 65% in 1912, they were competing with Bernie Sanders hero Eugene V. Debs (who pulled 6%) and one of the four faces on Mount Rushmore (Teddy Roosevelt.)
It’s very difficult to keep the major party candidates under 80% of the vote. Johnson and Stein do not have the pedigrees or resources of the others who have done this in the past. If we look up in mid August and Trump and Clinton are struggling to combine for more than 75% in surveys, they both failed, even if the margin between the two has changed.
While it’s better for Trump if he closes the gap and better for Clinton if he doesn’t, a continuation of 20-25% (or higher) disgust with the main candidates is a sign of a very unpredictable fall campaign. Neither of the campaigns should be overconfident. On the other hand, if they combine for something over 80% it’s an indication voters are either more satisfied with them, or have decided one option is so much more loathsome than the other that it’s worth throwing in with the lesser evil.
If neither can close the deal, which in this case means adequately proving the main opponent is significantly more satanic, it increases the odds Gary Johnson shows up in the fall debates. While he’s not a particularly good debater (at least based on his couple appearances in the 2012 GOP primary cycle), it’s still a wild card.
Trump’s first day was a good advertisement for Gary Johnson. Let’s see what the rest of the show brings.