Conventions raise curtain on a campaign like no other

Brian Snyder/Reuters
A sign reads "VOTE" outside the original site of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Aug. 16, 2020. This year’s DNC will be a largely virtual event due to the pandemic.

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As political convention season opens this week – with cheering crowds weirdly absent and most events virtual – America is hurtling toward a presidential vote like no other. It comes amid a historically tumultuous year in which a pandemic has upended much of normal life, a recession has shuttered large parts of the economy, and protests have changed the way many citizens view racial relations and the police.

On the ballot will be an incumbent who was already perhaps the most disruptive U.S. president of modern times – and proudly so. President Donald Trump has broken so many political norms over four years it’s hard to keep track.

Why We Wrote This

With back-to-back, mostly virtual political conventions, the presidential contest is entering a new phase. Heavily shaped by the pandemic and other crises, the race still has plenty of time to tighten before November.

Democratic challenger Joe Biden has run a low-key campaign, portraying himself as a traditional presidential figure who won’t fire off controversial tweets or try to divide Americans.

But it seems likely that Election 2020 will end up centering on President Trump – not just his disruptions, but the way he has responded to the coronavirus and related crises, and how those events may have changed what voters want from their government.

“This is a referendum on Donald Trump, as he kind of willed it to be,” says Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and communications specialist.  

Call it the Disruption Election.

As political convention season opens this week – with cheering crowds weirdly absent and most events virtual – America is hurtling toward a presidential vote like no other. It comes amid a historically tumultuous year in which a pandemic has upended much of normal life, a recession has shuttered large parts of the economy, and protests have changed the way many citizens view racial relations and the police.

On the ballot will be an incumbent who was already perhaps the most disruptive U.S. president of modern times – and proudly so. President Donald Trump has broken so many political norms over four years it’s hard to keep track.

Why We Wrote This

With back-to-back, mostly virtual political conventions, the presidential contest is entering a new phase. Heavily shaped by the pandemic and other crises, the race still has plenty of time to tighten before November.

Democratic challenger Joe Biden will figure in the outcome, of course. He has so far run a low-key campaign, portraying himself as a traditional presidential figure who won’t fire off controversial tweets or try to divide Americans.

But it seems likely that Election 2020 will end up centering on President Trump – not just his disruptions, but the way he has responded to the pandemic and related crises that have washed over the country, and how those events have, or have not, changed what voters want from their elected leader and their government.

“This is a referendum on Donald Trump, as he kind of willed it to be,” says Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and communications specialist.  

By definition, the presidential race is now entering a new phase, with the conventions making the tickets official. This week, the Democrats get four days to speak directly to the American people and try to frame the election to their advantage. Next week, President Trump and the Republicans will have their turn to do the same thing.

Conventions often give candidates a bounce in the polls, at least in the short term. But the size of bounces has declined in this highly partisan era, and it’s not clear whether conventions-as-Zoom-meetings will have the same effect. There’s also no time between the conventions this year, as there often is, since the Democrats postponed their event due to the pandemic. That might work to the benefit of the GOP.

Conventions may be set up as giant pep rallies, but they can still have memorable or surprising moments, says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris pass each other on the way to the podium during a campaign event at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware, Aug. 12, 2020.

Al Gore gave his then-wife Tipper a strange kiss at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. The then-little-known Barack Obama turned heads with a compelling speech at the 2004 DNC. Clint Eastwood debated an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

“It’s like the circus – someone may fall off the trapeze, or someone may accomplish an amazing feat,” says Dr. Perry.

This year, the medium may be the message for both parties, whether they wish it or not. The difference in the spectacle, with speakers dialing in remotely and no events or activists crowding on the convention floor, may highlight the changes wrought in larger society by the coronavirus.

“We know the number one issue on everyone’s mind will be the pandemic,” says Dr. Perry. “So substantively, how will the parties and the leaders present their plans [to deal with it]?”

November still a good way off

If the election were this week, former Vice President Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris would be heavy favorites over President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Given Mr. Biden’s continued, steady poll lead of between 7 and 10 points over the president, he would win 72 out of every 100 simulated votes run with current numbers, according to the FiveThirtyEight election forecast.

But the election is still a good way off, politically-speaking. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote last week, it’s not uncommon for polls to make big swings between mid-August and Election Day. Since 1976, three of the presidential candidates leading at this point in the race ended up losing the popular vote: Michael Dukakis in 1988, George W. Bush in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004. (Mr. Bush blew a 10-point lead, but still ended up narrowly winning the Electoral College and the Oval Office.)

The presidential debates are still to come. The pandemic might abate somewhat between now and November. The economy could show signs of life.

“I have a hard time believing that Trump will lose by eight points nationally,” says Alex Conant, a Republican political consultant who served as a spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I think the race is really going to tighten.”

The reaction to this probable tightening – from Democrats, Republicans, the media – could also be crucial, Mr. Conant says. Will it cause a round of negative coverage for the Democratic ticket that feeds on itself and tightens the race further, dampening enthusiasm for Mr. Biden and exciting Trump supporters? Could we end up with 2016 all over again, with Mr. Trump losing the popular vote but eking out a win in the Electoral College?

So far, Mr. Biden has been perfectly happy to keep his head down and not mix it up with the incumbent, as challengers typically do, Mr. Conant says. A change in the direction of the race could upend that strategy.

“Part of this is that Biden is not a candidate who has ever generated a lot of enthusiasm and media coverage,” he says. 

A politically difficult fall

To many Americans, the coronavirus remains the most important issue facing the nation, by far. The virus has crushed livelihoods, taken away freedom of movement, spread fear, and stolen lives.

For many parents of school-age children, the question of whether or not it is safe to open schools – and what to do about child care and education if it isn’t – overwhelms almost everything else. For them and the nation as a whole, this promises to be a politically difficult fall.

That holds for President Trump as well. The chief executive who initially dismissed the virus as something that would fade away, and who has since pushed governors to reopen their states and localities to reopen their schools, does not fare well in polls on the issue. 58% of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the pandemic, according to a RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys, while only 39.8% approve.

Voters appear unimpressed by Mr. Trump’s attempts to shift blame for the virus to China, or to present his administration’s role in the U.S. response as a success. The U.S. has 5.4 million cases and has lost about 170,000 lives – far more than any other country.

“In most presidential elections involving the incumbent, the race is most likely to be a referendum on the incumbent’s performance in office,” says William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Trump has made some efforts to change that dynamic and make the race about Mr. Biden, but so far to little effect, says Dr. Galston. The former vice president has instead proved difficult to define.

Unlike, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mr. Biden can’t be credibly painted as a leftist. In fact, several former Republican leaders, including former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are speaking tonight at the DNC in support of Mr. Biden. He’s stayed out of the spotlight and hasn’t injected himself into the political conversation at times when Mr. Trump is saying or doing controversial things. Mr. Biden has worked steadily to try to unify the Democratic Party around him and his agenda, to the extent that’s possible.

During convention season, Mr. Trump’s goal should be to broaden his support, not intensify it, says the Brookings scholar. His base is already strong. 

“Biden’s goal is the exact opposite. Biden’s support now is broad. He needs to intensify it,” says Dr. Galston.

The context for such efforts, of course, is a polarized nation in which most people have already made up their minds about politics and take their cues from their ideological “team.”

“We remain a highly divided country, and it’s getting harder and harder to find persuadable voters,” says Spencer Critchley, a Democratic communications consultant and author of the book, “Patriots of Two Nations: Why Trump Was Inevitable and What Happens Next.”

That said, conventions and other events which focus attention on the nation’s political conversation remain key components of the election cycle, says Mr. Critchley.

As the number of persuadable voters shrinks, every fraction of a percent that a campaign can move becomes a larger share of the small slice of swing voters that may decide who sits in the Oval Office for the next four years.

“Every opportunity to communicate is important,” Mr. Critchley says.

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