In modern politics, party conventions aren’t about selecting the nominee; voters take care of that through primaries and caucuses.
Conventions are for firing up the party for the campaign ahead, and for reintroducing its candidate to voters who haven’t made up their minds.
That’s especially important this year, when both the Republican and Democratic nominees start off with record disapproval rates.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could both use a fresh start with skeptical voters. That may have been what Trump was thinking when reporters from The New York Times asked what he hoped people would take away from his party’s convention.
He responded with uncharacteristic, Willy Loman-esque modesty: “The fact that I’m very well liked.”
But Trump is not well-liked by Sen. Ted Cruz, who seemed to relish not endorsing Trump in his convention speech. Cruz’s act of rebellion brought boos from the crowd and became the kind of headline convention managers hate to see.
It may not have bothered Trump, however, who seems to enjoy picking fights more than ending them.
Trump was well-liked by enough delegates to vote down half-hearted attempts by the “NeverTrump” gang to overturn primary results. But plenty of them have reservations about their nominee. Senior Republicans who took the stage — Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio — were barely able to acknowledge Trump’s success, let alone vouch for his character.
More important are reservations of top Republicans who pointedly stayed from Trump’s convention.
Most notable in that large and distinguished group is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who didn’t even welcome his party’s delegates to his home state. The Trump gang may not have missed him this week, but they will in the fall. No state is more important to Republicans’ success than Ohio, and it will be hard for them to win it without its popular Republican governor lending a hand.
ANATOMY OF A CONVENTION
A convention is a reflection on its nominee, and the #RNCinCLE suited Trump’s personality. It was light on policy and heavy on rhetoric of fear.
The boycott by former GOP presidents, nominees and other luminaries meant Trump didn’t have to share the spotlight he craves only for himself.
The convention, like its nominee, made little effort to hide its conspiracy-mongering, racist, authoritarian fringe, and Trump’s bare-bones organization failed to check Melania’s speech for plagiarism, focus other speakers on the daily messages it wished to convey or get balloons to fall on cue.
People who pay for GOP conventions and campaigns were absent. Big lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have split with Trump over his anti-trade and anti-immigration policies.
Corporate defections left the convention with a $6 million budget gap, and a last-minute appeal to billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson to bridge the gap went unanswered.
Trump, allegedly a billionaire, wouldn’t pony up the cash either, so his convention was lacking in big-name entertainment and other frills.
But Trump is certainly well-liked by his family. Convincing the country of that must have been a top goal, since one or two Trumps gave speeches every night of the convention.
Their endorsements may have helped humanize him for voters, and they gave supporters a reason to praise him.
‘YOU CAN’T FAKE GOOD KIDS’
Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, a former Cruz supporter whose well-received acceptance speech was overshadowed by the Cruz drama, said it was Trump’s children who convinced him to join the ticket.
“You can’t fake good kids,” he said.
“Any man that has those four kids on stage is not a risk to anybody anywhere,” Ron Kaufman, the longtime GOP operative who chaired the Massachusetts delegation, gushed. “And anybody who’d be smart enough, lucky enough to marry that gracious, elegant woman who in my opinion, as a Massachusetts guy, is an image of Jackie Kennedy as far as grace and elegance and decency, is a home run.”
Having someone else vouch for you is one good way to reintroduce yourself, and Trump’s family was more convincing in their endorsements than most of the GOP politicians who took the stage.
But at the end, the candidate speaks for himself. Trump’s acceptance speech, which should have been his crowning moment, was dark, disjointed and too long.
It appealed to fear and resentment, not aspirations. The speech had no humor, no grace, no new ideas or even new phrasing. It’s as if Trump decided he’d win over undecided voters by saying the same things, only louder.
THE HILLARY CHALLENGE
Now it’s Hillary Clinton’s turn to reintroduce herself, and her challenge is even tougher. Voters have known her for 25 years, and many decided long ago they can’t trust her, an impression reinforced by the FBI’s blistering report on her handling of emails as Secretary of State.
Clinton will build lots of themes into her convention in Philadelphia: The struggles of the middle class, the virtues of experience, the fear of Trump.
She’ll have a lineup of political all-stars to vouch for her — Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren — and her own family members, Chelsea and Bill.
She’ll need others to vouch for her as well. I imagine a video presentation featuring a dozen people — a 9/11 survivor, a soldier, a refugee, a mom, and Beyonce, for instance — taking turns explaining a problem Hillary helped solve or a cause they worked on together. They can say how well Hillary listened, how hard she worked, how much she knew and how effective she had been.
Then they could take the trust issue head-on, with lines like “I’ve known Hillary Clinton for 30 years. I’d trust her with my money and I’d trust her with my kids. Most of all, I’d trust her with my country.”
Can a production like that make voters see Hillary in a new light?
The Republican convention didn’t introduce us to a new, more presidential, Donald Trump. Now the Democrats will try to give us a new, more likeable, Hillary Clinton.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.