Republicans will open their national convention Monday with an urgent mission: To convince voters pessimistic about the state of a country battered by the coronavirus pandemic, economic recession and racial upheaval that President Donald Trump deserves another four years at the helm.
Convention organizers say the president and his surrogate speakers will showcase optimism and inspire hope in a season of worldwide despair, with programming planned around themes of “promise,” “opportunity” and “greatness” for the country in a second Trump term.
“The big contrast you’ll see between the Democrats’ doom and gloom, Donald Trump-obsessed convention will be a convention focused on real people, their stories, how the policies of the Trump administration has lifted their lives, and then an aspirational vision towards the next four years,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in an interview Saturday.
Yet the inclusion of some speakers who gained notoriety by inflaming culture wars – coupled with Trump’s preoccupation with personal grievances, escalating warnings of a “rigged election,” demonization of Democratic nominee Joe Biden and predilection for dark imagery – threatens to inspire a jarringly contrary message.
“A convention is a bit of a Rorschach test of where the party is at any given moment. America will see, this is how the Republican Party wants to present itself,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican strategist who orchestrated the party’s 2012 convention nominating Mitt Romney for president.
The party intends to present itself entirely in Trump’s own image, and the stakes for him could hardly be higher.
Trump is not the first recent incumbent president to start his convention facing a difficult reelection. In 2004, then-president George W. Bush was dealing with mounting opposition to the war in Iraq that threatened to take him down. In 2012, then-president Barack Obama was in trouble due to a sluggish economic recovery and tepid approval ratings.
But neither Bush nor Obama faced the kind of obstacles that currently exist for Trump. He is facing multiple crises at home and has been running a deficit in state and national polls throughout the spring and summer. If the election were held today, Trump likely would become the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush was defeated in 1992.
Trump will open his convention just days after the Democrats completed what was widely seen as a successful four nights of virtual programming that concluded with an acceptance speech by Biden that drew high marks for both style and substance.
While the Democrats re-imagined their convention for the pandemic as a completely virtual affair, the Republicans are devising something of a hybrid model. The GOP event will not take place in a cavernous arena as planned, but some of the marquee speakers – including Trump’s on Thursday night on the South Lawn of the White House – still plan to appear live before hundreds of people, even at the risk of flouting public health guidelines.
Republican strategist Mike DuHaime said Trump’s top priority should be to deal with negative judgments about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you’re an incumbent, you get reelected if you do a good job and thrown out if you don’t,” DuHaime said. “So challenge one for the president is to communicate what he’s doing on coronavirus and what he’s going to do to get the country back on a normal track.”
Trump has lost credibility on the issue of the pandemic. A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in July found that 64% of Americans saying they do not trust what Trump says about the coronavirus, with 46% saying they trust him “not at all.”
When speaking about the pandemic, Trump often has projected the image of a flamboyant salesman, offering claims that are exaggerated or just flat wrong. On the recent occasions when he has spoken more seriously about wearing masks and practicing social distancing, he has read from a script and, in the words of GOP strategist Michael Steel, delivers the message “with the energy of a limp windsock.”
McDaniel said the convention will present an affirmative case for Trump’s management of the pandemic and argue – in part by having live audiences for some speeches, a visual contrast with the Democrats’ hyper-vigilance about social distancing – that Americans can simultaneously tackle the virus and resume some aspects of their regular lives.
“They did a convention that didn’t balance health and safety with what most Americans are dealing with,” McDaniel said, pointing out that many people are back at work. “The president is going to give a different and more optimistic message, which is, we can fight this pandemic and get back to our lives – and if Joe Biden had his way, he’d keep us locked in our basements.”
Trump is expected to appear on each of the convention’s four nights. Other elected officials planning to speak include Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who is in a tough reelection campaign; Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem; and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley.
A variety of everyday Americans also are expected to deliver remarks, including Tanya Weinreis, a Montana coffee shop owner who used a federal loan this spring to keep in business; Carl and Marsha Mueller, the parents of a humanitarian aid worker who was killed by Islamic State terrorists; and Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a St. Louis couple who stood outside their home pointing guns at Black Lives Matters demonstrators.
The list of big-name Republicans not speaking underscores the degree to which the GOP is now the party of Trump. Whereas the Democratic convention featured all of its party’s living past presidents and some of its unsuccessful past nominees, the previous Republican president, George W. Bush, is not expected to participate, nor is Romney, now a senator from Utah and a vocal critic of Trump. And Cindy McCain, the widow of the party’s 2008 nominee, the late senator John McCain, spoke in a video that played at the Democratic convention.
Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor and former Republican National Committee chairman, said it is imperative that Trump use the convention not to rile up his core supporters but to strive to expand his coalition to include more Blacks, Hispanics, union workers and other voters whom polls show are cool to him.
“I don’t think he needs to focus on making his base harder. He needs to make it larger,” Barbour said. “If he focuses on his record and the results of his policies, that’s exactly what you do. So many of the people who benefited, and benefited the most, aren’t in Trump’s base.”
Trump’s political advisers have signaled that the president and others will focus on his accomplishments, hoping to persuade people not to base their votes entirely on the pandemic and the current state of the economy. GOP strategists note that a majority of Americans agree with at least some of the president’s initiatives. Although he has negative marks on his handling of the coronavirus, for instance, he still enjoys a slight, if narrowing, advantage over Biden on the economy.
To that end, Republicans plan to feature on each night a speaker who was born in countries like Cuba and Venezuela to deliver testimonials of what Republicans see as the dangers of socialism and suggest that’s what America could become with Democrats in power.
Trump and the other speakers are likely to spend considerable time attacking Biden as captive of a “radical left” wing of the Democratic Party and warning that a Biden presidency would result in widespread violent protests and chaos in the streets of major cities. The president hit that theme in a tweet on Saturday morning. “Why would suburban women vote for Biden and the Democrats when Democrat run cities are now rampant with crime . . . which could easily spread to the suburbs?” he wrote.
Democrats are planning next week to mount an aggressive counter-effort, with daily videos and speeches from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other prominent Democrats.
“We see an opportunity to take advantage of their chaos and disorganization to talk about what this chaotic presidency has yielded for folks,” said DNC senior spokesperson Lily Adams, who laid out a thematic focus on Trump’s mismanagement of various crises.
Republicans have released relatively little information about their convention programming, and officials have sought to preserve the element of surprise. Trump has been so visible lately that there seems little he might say there that he hasn’t already said in some public forum already. Republican strategists see him as overexposed and therefore in danger of being tuned out by all but the most ardent supporters.
“Law and order” has been the overriding theme of Trump’s campaign advertising, but the ads have not had the intended impact on Biden’s image.
“The Republican convention has an opportunity to repaint Biden in negative light,” said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University.
If convention speakers can do that, then the November election becomes a choice between the two candidates rather than a referendum on the president, as it is now.
The GOP convention offers Trump the chance for a reset of his campaign. At present his prospects for reelection look more than challenging. Some GOP operatives believe the race has tightened a bit in recent weeks and that a more disciplined candidate and campaign, amplified by conservative media on the outside, could give Trump an additional boost.
For encouragement, the president can look back to 1988, when George H.W. Bush entered his convention trailing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. He used his convention to begin a comeback that ultimately led to victory in the fall.
Ron Kaufman, a veteran Republican National Committee member who was part of that 1988 campaign, said of Trump on the eve of this year’s GOP convention, “He’s a vaccine and three good debates away, and I believe he will prevail,” explaining that he does not mean mass distribution of a vaccine before the election, but only that Americans believe an effective one is coming.