25 July 2016

America’s fractured national conventions


Conventions are exciting affairs. From the roll call of proud state delegates, to the variety of speeches made on stage, the coronation of presidential candidates has a real buzz to it. This time round, though, anticipation has been far higher than usual following the surprise nomination of Donald Trump by the GOP membership.

For many months, journalists had been theorising about a chaotic ‘contested convention’ if Trump failed to earn a majority. As we know, that was all in vain, but the Republican National Convention was still characterised by drama, incoherency and division. Hillary Clinton’s Democratic National Convention this week could hardly differ more from the wild and unpredictable Republican equivalent, though it has its own problems which threaten to derail efforts to pull the party together. The conventions epitomise the key differences in approach between each presidential campaign.

Arguably the most important aspect of each convention is party unity. In Cleveland, the GOP demonstrated that the party is a long way from unanimously backing Donald Trump. On Tuesday, GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell only gave lukewarm support to their candidate. Ryan mentioned Trump just twice in a 1,450-word speech. In the delegate ranks, meanwhile, there was a mini-rebellion during the roll call as they queried the rules on votes redistribution. The following day, GOP runner-up Senator Ted Cruz astonishingly declined to endorse Trump. Booed off stage, Cruz’s move was unprecedented. Trump was irate, launching a tirade against Cruz at his first press conference as official GOP candidate.

While the convention should be promoting the presidential ticket, the only thing to unite Republicans was their hatred for Hillary Clinton. The convention’s unofficial slogan of ‘lock her up’, encouraged by Governor Chris Christie’s speech, was the message which resonated most with the attendees.

For Clinton, reuniting the party after a bruising primary season has not been easy. It took a long time for Bernie Sanders to offer his endorsement, but his speech in New Hampshire a fortnight ago offered his complete and unambiguous support. Having succeeded in securing a very progressive Democratic platform which encompasses many of his ideas, Sanders heaped praise on his rival, concluding that she would “make an outstanding president”.

However united they are likely to appear on stage, though, behind the scenes and on the convention floor a different story could emerge. WikiLeaks published more than 19,000 internal DNC emails last Friday which revealed the extent to which DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz worked to thwart Sanders’ campaign, leading to her resignation on Sunday. While the GOP’s fractious state was revealed on stage, the biggest concern for Democrats in Philadelphia will be the actions of the Vermont Senator’s supporters. His vocal, impassioned campaigners are embittered that Sanders wasn’t given a fair crack of the whip, and last weekend’s news is likely to further embolden them. Clinton has a lot of work to do to win their support, and that question will be hanging over the convention.

Another point of comparison is who takes the stage at each event. Sanders joins a list of high-profile speakers for the DNC. In Philly, delegates will hear from President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and President Bill Clinton. Given his strong approval ratings, Obama’s wholehearted support for Hillary could be influential, and it is extremely rare for a two-term president to campaign for his successor.

Meanwhile, several of the Republican Party’s most well-respected figures refused to turn up last week: including the Bush family, Senator John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Given the nature of Trump’s campaign, though, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The lack of ‘establishment’ figures highlights the ‘outsider’ status which his target voters enjoy. Importantly, the speeches from Trump’s four children came across very well. Unlike his Republican colleagues, Trump’s kids gave speeches which celebrated their father, testified movingly for his private character, and in the case of Donald Trump Jr even discussed a series of policy points in the GOP platform. They were convincing orators, and are sure to make many appearances in the coming months.

If only their stepmother Melania Trump had been as successful. Whatever happened behind the scenes, Monday’s plagiarism controversy did a great deal to overshadow the convention. Instead of Trump’s PR team addressing the issue head on, rumours and mixed messages were allowed to plague convention week, and the whole fiasco was embarrassing. Although the brashness and off-the-cuff nature of Trump’s campaign is popular, this episode suggested chaos and unprofessionalism: not an image one wants to be associated with.

It is very hard to see such a debacle occurring at the Democratic convention. Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff is packed with experience, most of her staff well-versed in political campaigns. This contrast is made very clear by Clinton and Trump’s press secretaries. Brian Fallon has worked as a high-profile Communications Director in Washington D.C. for years. Trump has 27-year-old Hope Hicks, who fell into the role after working on PR for Ivanka.

The DNC is also likely to present its ideological messages in a very different way. In Cleveland, the RNC’s running order was split into a message theme for each day, based on Trump’s famous slogan: Make America 1) Safe 2) Work 3) First and 4) One Again. The first night spoke a fair deal about security, but from that point there seemed to be very little in the way of coherence. Many speeches had a confused mixture of content, and very little on policy. Particularly strange was Ben Carson’s rambling about Clinton’s admiration for the radical Paul Alinsky, in which he asked “are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model someone who acknowledges Lucifer?”

Similar themes have been announced for the DNC and, although they are similarly vague – such as ‘United Together’ – there seems to be more of an exact, coherent plan about what each night will be dealing with. On Tuesday night, for example, the focus is on Hillary Clinton’s campaigning for families, and the Mothers of the Movement – mothers of black men killed by police – have been invited to speak, along with Bill Clinton. Also, given how policy-heavy the Clinton campaign has been so far, one would expect to hear a lot more about their platform than we heard from the GOP.

The Clinton campaign’s new overarching slogan of ‘Stronger Together’ was introduced for Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire endorsement. It is an optimistic message – perhaps overly optimistic if Bernie fans create a stir – in direct conflict with the message presented by Donald Trump in his speech on Thursday night. Echoing Richard Nixon during the turmoil of 1968, Trump’s speech had a dark mood, aiming to channel the frustrations of the silent majority, and calling for law and order: “beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored”. With 70% of Americans feeling that America is on the wrong track, Trump is hoping that his approach will resonate.

The Democratic National Convention this week will be more at odds with its Republican equivalent this year than it has been for many years. Donald Trump’s untraditional, un-politically-correct and divisive campaign has ignored the rulebook. His unconventional convention made that even more clear. Hillary Clinton’s slick Democratic convention could be unsettled by Sanders’ supporters who feel betrayed by the party. If the convention is marred, however, it will not come from a string of easily-avoidable mistakes, and her well-oiled political machine should be far ahead of Trump’s campaign on paper. But elections are not won on paper.

Jack Graham is a political commentator who specialises in American politics.