2016 Elections

Republicans' Convention Advertises Their Weakness

The work of the primary is not done; the party is still trying to sell its nominee to Republican voters.

Plotting their remodel of a certain Pennsylvania Avenue address.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The highlight of the first day of the Republican Convention was Melania Trump singing her husband's praises. That's what those who just tuned in for the broadcast network coverage saw. It was a solid speech. 

The rest of the day -- the part that very few voters watch -- had relatively few mentions of the Republican standard bearer. 

The afternoon session was all about dissent: Dump Trumpers were still fighting to get a vote on something, anything, and when denied even a vote they resorted to a floor demonstration, with a couple of delegations actually walking out.

The second half -- the prime time portion, albeit only on CSPAN and the cable networks -- was all about red meat for hard-core Republicans. Benghazi figured prominently. Murderous immigrants figured prominently. Terrorism figured prominently. And the speakers bashed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama frequently and with as much disdain as they could gather, with several of them saying Clinton belongs in jail.

That sequence of presentations had almost nothing at all for swing voters, who are almost certainly not obsessed with Benghazi, or with the need to say the words "radical Islamic terrorism" as if that's all that's needed to, in the words of the theme of the night, to "make America safe again." 1  

But the two parts of the day go together: Even at the end of the primary season, Republicans still need to appeal to Republican voters because their party is badly split over Donald Trump. 

So most speakers on Day 1 of the convention were speaking fully within the conservative closed information loop. It's a (fictional) world in which Obama spent the last eight years apologizing for the U.S. rather than opposing terrorism, a world in which Obama and Clinton support open borders, and so on. Indeed: It wasn't even necessary for most of speakers to bother mentioning what exactly Obama or Clinton had done, or to connect it to any particular bad outcome. Instead, all they needed to do was to make references to "leading from behind" or "bowing," references fully understood by those who listen to lots of conservative talk radio.

As several commentators said on Twitter, it all sounded more like CPAC -- the conservative conference in which conservatives talk to other conservatives -- than like a Republican convention.

I suspect all of this will be quite effective at appealing to Republicans.

The gamble is whether the convention will wind up being labeled "ugly" by the news media. Certainly, the Clinton campaign will encourage the media to talk about xenophobia, scaremongering and demagoguery. Republicans have been effectively painted with those sorts of words before, and they are more vulnerable to it than ever with Trump as their nominee. If you already think that Trump is an authoritarian who is a threat to democracy, then having the convention chant "lock her up" about the other party's nominee sounds even more threatening. 

In other words: Republicans keep paying the price for selecting a nominee whom many in the party don't like. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Oddly enough, for something which speaker after speaker insisted was absolutely crucial, there doesn't seem to be much agreement about exactly what the magic words are. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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