Conventions, Debates, Money — What Will Matter in November?

11 mins read

The Republican National Convention was such a dazzling display of compelling political theater — freed hostages, a pardon ceremony, a naturalization ceremony – one could be forgiven for half-expecting to see fire-eaters, lion tamers or a 3-by-5-foot Publishers Clearing House check suddenly bestowed upon an exuberant supporter. It’s hard not to imagine President Trump getting a polling boost from an effective convention, but it’s also hard to know whether it will make a difference two months from now. 

Traditional campaign metrics didn’t matter in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, and it’s not clear that they will make a difference this year. Four years ago Clinton certainly set herself up for victory — with endorsements from important people, more campaign offices in battleground states, more money and more than 50 boffo math geeks on her bigger data team. Things didn’t work out so well, though. 

Trump had a great convention this week, but in Trump’s America, nothing that happened last week matters now. Remember last week? Trump declared a boycott of Goodyear tires, refused to distance himself from the conspiracy cult of QAnon — deemed a domestic terrorist threat by the FBI — and accused the Food and Drug Administration of being the Deep State working against his reelection. Pretty basic stuff by his standards. There will be plenty more of this in the days and weeks to come, a continual washing away of whatever came before. 

What came before in political campaigns lost its importance in 2016 and that trend is likely to evolve even more this cycle. During the Republican primary back then Trump skipped all the diners and pancake breakfasts that you had to visit and participate in to win in Iowa and New Hampshire, thus launching your path to the nomination. While other candidates were cramped into small gatherings at churches and public libraries, Trump held made-for-TV rallies and won.

What Trump disdains in small gatherings he makes up for in headliner events. He started this week in Charlotte (the original location of his convention before it was relocated to Florida for fewer pandemic protections, then canceled and reimagined for Washington, D.C.) where nominating and delegate business was still taking place. After his formal nomination Monday he rambled on in a spontaneous acceptance speech about how the Democrats are going to steal the election. He’s busting on former Vice President Joe Biden for not campaigning in person and attending any part of the DNC events in Milwaukee. Find me the voter who will remember, let alone resent, that Biden didn’t make it to Milwaukee. 

Indeed, the Democrats seemed quite at ease in the virtual vortex back in Delaware — or Los Angeles, where some genius pulled the entire thing together from home without shoes on. Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris spoke to the nation from dark, sparse and silent places with black masks on most of the time. It looked dreary and somber — Trump might call it low-energy. It wasn’t nearly as good a television show as the RNC. But that didn’t likely matter either. By most measures the DNC was a pretty shrewdly designed convention too, hitting the right notes, avoiding the wrong ones. While Biden didn’t get a “bounce” (in a badly polarized country it’s hard to exceed an eight-point lead), he solidified his favorability with voters who didn’t know much about him, or think much of him, before — save for his ability to beat Trump.

It’s also hard to know who was watching the conventions. Some political focus groups this week found participants who hadn’t watched one minute of them. Viewership, with the exception of the night Melania Trump spoke, was lower for the RNC than the DNC. And it’s no surprise people are skipping them altogether. After all, conventions became really dull wastes of time without surprises or consequences a long time ago. And on Zoom or in empty rooms, even Kimberly Guilfoyle’s rapturous screaming doesn’t feel quite the same as thousands of people cheering in unison, standing next to one another. Trump knows this, which is why he prefers rallies to regular campaign events and why he dangerously stuffed 1,000 people side by side, with no mandatory mask rule, on the White House lawn Thursday night. 

Maybe conventions are more helpful for fundraising than actually changing — or soothing – voters’ minds. Yet it’s hard to see an advantage in one party raising more money than the other party during these two weeks as consequential. And how much of an advantage does money buy you these days in a pandemic when campaigning is light? In 2016 Clinton had more money, and the machine, but Trump had the message.

That may not be the case this year. Biden is promising to “build back better” and return to normal with his “battle for the soul of the nation,” while the combined Trump-aligned PACs and campaign and the RNC have spent nearly $1 billion to discover Trump still doesn’t know what his reelection campaign message is. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, it was Keep America Great, but now that the country has been demolished by infection, grief and economic destruction, the message is mostly MAGA, or as Vice President Mike Pence likes to say: “Make America Great Again — Again.” Still, sometimes the Transition to Greatness returns, and other times Trump is asked by friendly interviewers what he would do with a second term and he grumbles in self-pity about the Russia investigation. 

The next moment of leverage of the general election campaign will be the much anticipated presidential debates on Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. Biden was arguably one of the worst debaters on the stage during the primaries, yet he won the nomination 

In 2016 Trump’s bully routine helped him in the primary debates with eight or 10 rivals at a time, but he was out-debated by Clinton in all three general election match-ups and still won the election. As he did in 2016, Trump will tell everyone he won the debates, no matter how they go. Last time, he tweeted out results from the social media accounts from news organizations, which aren’t scientifically conducted and aren’t considered accurate. But reputable polls – including those from Fox News, Gallup, CNN, NBC, Politico, Public Policy Polling and YouGov — showed Clinton winning all three. 

Trump hopes for Biden to have a senior moment, or several, and Democrats fear the same. More likely Trump will do something to startle Biden (will he show up with Tara Reade?) and provoke an angry response. Biden is susceptible to this because he is a hot-head like Trump, just not quite as hot. So when Biden can’t remember the name of a law he wrote, several times, do voters decide they must support Trump instead? It’s more likely the arguments about vigor and acumen will hit too close to home for Trump, and Democrats and the Lincoln Project will just send around more videos of the president slurring his words the next day.

The polling will bounce up and down. Will evictions and foreclosures and layoffs cascade through the fall? Or will the economy improve as the stock market seems to believe? Will crime spikes continue in cities, more unarmed black men get shot by police, protests swell or turn violent, and schools shut as outbreaks multiply? Will a vaccine materialize faster than any ever has?

It’s 2020, the year of the unthinkable. Much more can happen and it will. We won’t know what made the difference until it’s all over. 

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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