Will unconventional GOP convention work for Trump?

Will Republicans rally to a celebrity-heavy convention, as opposed to one replete with traditional political oratory?

Andrew Milligan/PA via AP
Donald Trump at the Trump International Golf Links near Aberdeen, Scotland, Saturday June 25, 2016. There, Mr. Trump said he is OK with a Scottish Muslim entering the US.

This year the Republican National Convention is going to be unconventional. That’s what presumptive nominee Donald Trump is promising, anyway. The schedule is still in flux, but for the most part boring speeches by politicians will be kept to a minimum. They’ll be replaced by exciting appearances by sports stars and other celebrities, according to Mr. Trump.

Trump himself rejected proposals that he speak all three nights, Trump tells The New York Times. But never fear, there are lots of other Trumps to go around. Trump’s children will speak, and perhaps Trump’s wife, Melania, will as well.

“She’s actually writing some things up right now,” Trump told the NYT.

Will this work? It seems ad hoc and unpredictable. And the stakes are high. Right now Trump is trailing in the polls. His party convention offers one of his best chances to catch up.

“The party conventions have been, year in and year out, the most influential events in presidential campaigns, at least as measured by changes in the polls,” write political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA in their study of the 2012 race, “The Gamble.”

It’s true – so-called “game changers” come and go, from campaign gaffes to hard-hitting ads, with little permanent effect on poll standing. But it is a truism among political scientists that the conventions can produce a bounce that persists, permanently altering the relative standing of presidential candidates.

We’ll back up a bit here and note that it is not as if Trump is trashing an institution beloved by media and voters alike. Conventions have come in for increasing criticism in recent years that mirrors much of what Trump’s saying. They’re boring. They’re long. They wander. There’s no drama. Viewers know in advance who wins the nomination, so they’re like watching reruns of baseball games whose box score you’ve already read.

Four years ago, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw went so far as to propose they be pared to one day of prime-time speeches. And he’s not alone.

Plus, in some ways Trump is just trying to make Trump-brand Lemonade out of the lemons at hand. Many top Republican officeholders and political celebrities are declining to attend the Cleveland convention due to pressing appointments with mowing their lawns. With the notable exception of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (and maybe Sen. Marco Rubio), Trump’s ex-rivals for the nomination aren’t showing up. They have no interest in a virtual reenactment of “Political Apprentice” in which Trump metaphorically fires each before crowning himself.

Trump’s approach may work, in political terms. It may not. In general, conventions help candidates rally the wavering party faithful. To do so they need lots of media coverage, and few controversies that generate negative stories. In Trump’s case the former seems assured. The latter, not so much.

Take trade. Trump’s tough anti-free-trade message is at odds with decades of GOP tradition. Make that a convention theme, and the US Chamber of Commerce crowd will tune out. Likewise, immigration. Trump’s ridden his proposals to build a wall along the southern border and bar non-citizen Muslims all the way to the GOP nomination. Yet that’s pretty controversial, and reporters are sure to mention that when the subject comes up.

And Trump needs a convention poll bounce, particularly among Republicans. A decline in GOP support is almost certainly the cause of his dip in the polls over the past month.

Will Republicans rally to a celebrity-heavy convention, as opposed to one replete with traditional political oratory? That is an experiment in political science to which we may find the answer in a few weeks.

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