Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Unconventional and Conventional: Thoughts on the Republican National Convention

It was an unconventional convention.  By all traditional accounts the RNC was a failure .  US Today, Politco, FiveThirtyeight, Roll Call, and other media sources all question whether Trump will get a traditional post-convention bounce.  Of course we need to wait for survey data to answer that question.  But let’s consider the reasons to think why there might not be a bounce.

Since the time conventions were broadcast on television presidential candidates have received bounces.  The bounces are the product of several factors.  The first is simply intense media coverage of the convention where lots of people watch the convention.  Conventions are advertising or education for the public and they get to see the candidate, often times for the first time.  Second, conventions traditionally received significant ratings or viewership, and they presented a  positive, upbeat, and optimistic message that people liked.  Finally, they also were visually appealing with flags, balloons, and pageantry, and all this looks terrific on television.

The size of the bounce generally has fluctuated over time.  Polls suggest that Carter and Clinton received double-digit bounces, Obama and McCain received modest single-digit bounces in 2008 and the same was true for Obama and Romney in 2012.  Possible reasons for this is the declining  audience for political conventions and a hardening of partisanship and the declining percentage of the electorate whom one can describe as swing voters.  Thus, as fewer people watch conventions overall and with fewer voters who are subject to switching their votes conventions may matter less and therefore there is a smaller potential bounce.  Assume all this is correct, perhaps one might guess that Trump and the RNC should have produced perhaps a 3-5 point bounce.

So why might Trump not even receive this modest bump?  By all accounts the RNC was a disaster.  Conventions have become predicable and boring infomercials over time (which is perhaps why in part viewership has declined) where the goal is to present party unity, an optimistic forward-looking message, and to begin to speak beyond the base and speak to the broader public, especially the swing voters.  The RNC did none of that.  It presented a dark scary view of the world every night, especially with Trump’s speech.  The best conventions over time have been bright and optimistic–1984 Reagan’s “It’s morning in America”; 1992 Clinton’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’; 2008 Obama’ “Hope and change” and “yes we can.”  All this as absent last week.

The unity was not there either (except to oppose Clinton), and in many ways the party and Trump continued to talk to the base and bring party unity.  Pence was selected as VP to bring party unity, the speeches all seemed directed at appealing to Trump supporters and not to the swing voters.

In terms of choreography and scripting Trump’s speech was a mess.  It was too long and started too late.  The best speeches are ones that begin about 10:05 Eastern time.  They go 40 minutes.  That leaves 15 minutes for flag waving and balloons to drop.  There is then a five minute news wrap up and then the 11 PM news comes on and it is all repeated.  Trump who normally knows how to master the news cycle blew it.  Trump had better ratings that Romney in 2012 but it was lower than McCain in 2008.  I suspect viewership dropped dramatically after 11 PM eastern and the number of people watching the late news also was less than it could have been.  Finally, in terms of messaging, overshadowing Trump was news of his wife’s plagiarized speech and Cruz’s Brutus or Marc Anthony appearance.

Given the above, convention wisdom suggests a modest or perhaps no or even negative post-convention bounce for Trump.  But hold on, there are still reasons to think why longer term Trump may not be hurt by what happened.

First consider the message.  As noted political messages are historically positive not negative. Trump appealed not to our better natures (JFK’s inaugural line “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” or George H.W. Bush’s call for a “kinder and gentler America” seem quaint by comparison) but to base emotions and fear might still work.  The brilliance of his speech was to instill fear in Americans and then propose they only he can address those fears.  It was an appeal to the most basic Maslowian level of needs–address security–or an appeal to the most simple Freudian or Hobbesian concerns about fear and security.  In addition, Trump stole a page out of marketing and advertising–both of which often appeal to our sense of fear, anxiety, or dread.  Trump preyed upon the anxieties of an America (or a slice of it) fearing terrorism, police shootings, immigrants, and who knows what.  Fear and prejudice are powerful forces, and he tapped into them much in the same way Nixon did in 1968.

Don’t count out Trump yet.  Yes Democrats look at the RNC and the polls and are giddy.  Clinton  is a certainty.  Again don’t bet on it.  Clinton’s close up is coming this week.  She is banking on the  conventional to win it for her.  She picked an unexciting Tim Kaine as running mate, signaling both that she is assuming he helps with swing state Virginia and swing voters.  Her selection indicates she will run right to her party and that she assumes that the Sanders wing has no where to go and will vote for her out of fear of Trump.  Her convention will be tightly scripted and boring, following the playbook for conventions for the last generation or two.  Maybe boring and unexciting will win the day.

But Clinton needs to do several things next week.  She still lacks an narrative and explanation for why she should be president.  Her speech needs to articulate that.  She needs to address her honestly, credibility, like-ability, and lack of enthusiasm for her problems.  The e-mail controversy damaged her, and her negatives in the high 50s are a liability.  She needs to provide a reason why voters should show up and vote for her and not simply stay home and not vote for either her or Trump.  Maybe she too will use fear of Trump to motivate voters, and maybe that will be enough, yet Clinton does seem to be counting on the fact that playing conventional politics will triumph over Trump’s  unconventional in a year when the conventional seems under assault.

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