What Donald Trump needs to do at the Republican National Convention this week is, among other things, to keep it Trumpian.
That’s not difficult advice for the president to take. Indeed, for four years he has resisted the counsel of others to do anything else – to dial down his provocative tweets, for instance, or to reach out in a serious way to those Americans who didn’t vote for him in 2016.
That said, there was a reason he won the biggest upset in modern times four years ago – actually, a complicated combination of reasons – and with his current course heading toward defeat, he needs to remind millions of reluctant voters why they backed him in the first place.
Trump now trails in national polls by an average of about 8 percentage points and in battleground state surveys by narrower margins. With his support at about 50%, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has the steadiest and strongest standing of any contender challenging an incumbent president at this point in modern times – a lead that is significant but not insurmountable.
In the final 10 weeks of the campaign, the GOP’s biggest opportunities to change that trajectory are during the four-day convention and in the fall debates.
“Trump perceives all elections as base elections, so much of the convention will be about exciting that base and reminding them why they shouldn’t abandon him,” predicted Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University historian who has studied the rising conservative movement. “But none of that shakes things up very much, so he’ll also have to create some dramatic moments through major announcements. He needs to make the convention a newsmaking event.”
The announcement of a safe, effective and widely available COVID-19 vaccine, for instance. (The president has repeatedly said he expects a vaccine to be released “very soon.”)
What Trump won’t try to do is replicate last week’s Democratic convention, which portrayed Biden as a measured politician, tested by personal tragedy and prepared to unite a divided nation at a time of crisis. By political convention standards, it was intimate and somber.
“The darkest and angriest and gloomiest convention in American history,” the president scoffed on Friday.
What about his convention?
Here are three things Trump needs to do.
One: Turn a referendum into a choice
Trump is the only president in modern times who has never commanded the approval of a majority of Americans in a major national poll, not even on the day he was inaugurated. He heads into the Republican convention with a job approval rating that is underwater by more than 10 percentage points: 43.7% approval to 54.2% disapproval, according to the running average maintained by RealClearPolitics.com.
It’s hard for incumbents to win another term when a majority of Americans think you’re doing a bad job already. Unless, that is, the candidate can convince voters that the alternative is worse, or that his opponent would pursue policies that were dangerous or damaging. That could prompt the president’s critics to vote for him or just stay home.
“Trump needs a choice on policy, not a referendum on character,” said Scott Jennings, a former White House aide to President George W. Bush and adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
One problem: Biden looked vigorous in his acceptance speech, and the Democratic convention did as much to appeal to those in the middle, even spotlighting Republican speakers, as it did to those on the left.
Two: Convince Americans things are getting better, and soon
The deadly coronavirus has raised questions about Trump’s competence and undercut the booming economy that was supposed to be the underpinning of his reelection campaign. Turning around perceptions of whether he acted wisely and consistently in the past may be hard to do, but he could make the case that better days are around the corner.
“Be positive about the future,” advised John Feehery, a former senior aide to House Republicans. “Things are looking up. The president needs to be the optimist-in-chief.”
The GOP convention will look more traditional than the Democratic convention did, although there will still be limits on the number of people allowed in the audience and a requirement that they wear facial masks.
The programming is intended to convey some sense of normalcy. Six delegates from each state are gathering at the Charlotte Convention Center, where the convention was originally supposed to be held. During a trip to North Carolina on Monday, Trump may drop by to address them as they tend to party business.
Many of the speeches through the week will be delivered at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C, and Trump is expected to deliver his acceptance address from the White House. There are reports that his speech will be followed by a display of fireworks over the Washington Monument.
Trump will need more than that to reassure Americans that the pandemic is under control, said Gary Segura, co-founder of the research firm Latino Decisions and dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA.
“We have 165,000 dead Americans, and they’re not going to come back to life,” he said.
But one thing could make a difference.
“The only thing I think that disrupts things is if Donald Trump were able to claim credit for a vaccine, should one be identified as safe and effective in September or early October,” Segura said.
That could have an impact even though Segura says Trump wouldn’t deserve the credit.
Three: Keep it Trumpian
With another candidate, the advice would be to make things less Trumpian – to moderate his rhetoric and broaden his coalition – but the insiders who urged him to do that early in his administration are mostly gone.
“There’s a wide gulf between what Donald Trump needs to do and what he is willing to do and capable of doing,” Hemmer said.
If a change in tactics isn’t going to happen, then Trump’s best and perhaps only option is to double-down.
The president needs to regain the support of some of the voters he has lost, including among college-educated whites, especially women. He has issued dark warnings about what Democrats in power would mean for “suburban housewives,” making suggestions with racist overtones that property values would fall and street crimes increase.
“I’m the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness and chaos,” he declared in a rambling, combative speech to a conservative group in suburban Virginia on Friday, a possible preview of his convention remarks.
He continues to portray himself as an outsider standing up to powerful elites, although that’s a trickier thing to do after four years in power. He is likely to “play up grievance politics as much as possible, sending a very clear message that ‘I am for you; they are against you,'” Hemmer said.
Feehery has one more piece of advice: “Don’t be boring,” he said, echoing Trump’s criticism that the Democratic convention was too downbeat.
That is in Trump’s wheelhouse. “Boring” is not a word either his supporters or his detractors often use about him.
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