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The Sweep: Now It’s the GOP’s Turn
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The Sweep: Now It’s the GOP’s Turn

A look back at the Democratic convention, and what to expect from the Republicans this week.

Campaign Quick Hits

Convention(al) ratings: Not surprisingly, TV viewership was down from 2016 and online viewership was almost certainly up. According to the Nielson ratings agency, Vice President Joe Biden’s speech drew about 25 million viewers on television, which was the most viewed event on television for the week, and more than 10 million across streaming platforms, according to the campaign. But compared with 2016, television viewership was down about 18 percent. President Trump’s Thursday night appearance on Fox News’s Hannity drew about 5 million viewers. 

You’ve got mail (if you’re a Democrat): The Wall Street Journal reported more than half of absentee ballot requests in North Carolina have come from registered Democrats compared with 15 percent from Republican voters. In Florida, Democrats have claimed they have signed up 1.86 million Democrats to vote by mail—a 500,000 person lead over Republicans. For the 2020 election, only six states, including Texas, are limiting mail-in voting to those with a reason such as a disability or being out of town on Election Day. Every other state, including 20 states that changed their process this year in light of coronavirus, allows anyone to request an absentee ballot or is automatically sending applications or ballots to its voters. 

Feeling rejected: Nearly twice as many primary election absentee ballots have been rejected so far this year compared to all the general election absentee ballots that were rejected in 2016, according to NPR. That’s despite the fact that more than twice as many people are expected to vote in this year’s general election. Imagine every precinct captain in a battleground state deciding whether a signature on a ballot matches the voter’s signature card when they know that a ballot is four times as likely to be a vote for Biden.

Mind the (enthusiasm) gap: Nearly three-fourths of voters say they are “extremely or very enthusiastic about voting this fall,” according to a CNN poll released last week. Among those motivated voters, Biden has a 53 percent to 46 percent advantage over Trump. Although some battleground state polls are starting to show some tightening as we head into Labor Day, the national polling averages have stayed remarkably consistent this summer. Currently, Biden enjoys an 8.7 percent lead nationally.

Hey, big spender: The Washington Post, citing the latest FEC filings, reported, “President Trump’s campaign, the Republican Party and two affiliated committees, have spent more than $1 billion since 2017, a record-breaking sum spent toward a reelection effort at this point in the presidential campaign.” Of course, money is only as good as how you spend it. 

Now, I ain’t sayin’ he’s a vote-digger: Kanye West will not be on the ballot in battleground Wisconsin after failing to get his petitions in before the deadline. He has also failed to file his FEC report in time. First of all, this just goes to show how difficult ballot access and FEC compliance are for third-party candidates even with significant resources. For all the discussion about voting rights, neither of the two major parties has any interest in making this process easier for candidates. Second, what is going on here? His campaign seems to be relying heavily on Republican operatives, which would lead a rational observer to think that the plan is somehow to help Trump by siphoning off black voters from Biden, but at least one poll showed West at “around 1 percent of the vote nationally and hurting Trump more than he hurt Biden.” So I’m just as confused as you are.

Late breaking: The RNC released its 2020 Republican Party platform resolution Sunday evening in which they wrote that they had “unanimously voted to forego [sic] the Convention Committee on Platform” and that “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” A few hours later, the Trump campaign released his second term agenda, which is a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the Republican party in the last four years. For example, it doesn’t contain the words “constitution” or “limited” or “life” or “judges” or “religion” or “faith” or “liberty.” 

Let’s turn to Andrew for a nice wrap on the DNC for those who didn’t tune in or have blocked out the memory.

DNC Recapitulation: What I Saw at the Revolution

Democratic primary voters sent a clear message to the party in nominating Joe Biden: This election was about building the biggest possible tent, not swinging for the ideological fences. Internal party fights over single-payer health care, mega-spending proposals like the Green New Deal, and activist goals like the abolition of police—these were to be set aside. There will be plenty of time to squabble over such things once The Donald was out of the big house.

Across its four nights of programming, last week’s Democratic National Convention largely played to this theme. Progressives and moderates alike gave speech after speech decrying President Trump’s stewardship of the nation over the last four years. And in a move calculated to drive home the point, several anti-Trump Republicans—former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Secretary of State Colin Powell— spoke as well.

Going in, one open question was how nicely the party’s left wing would play along with this messaging. While parties intend their conventions to be strong displays of unity ahead of an election, they don’t always play out that way. Recall how, four years ago, NeverTrump holdouts used the event as a staging ground for a last-ditch procedural revolt, and Sen. Ted Cruz drove the Quicken Loans Arena into anarchy with his surprise exhortation for Republicans to “vote their conscience.”

For the most part, however, last week’s events signaled that this time, the left will be largely (if begrudgingly) willing to play along. Back in March, Bernie Sanders was taking a blowtorch to Biden’s establishment coziness with the “corporate establishment” and accusing him of wanting to prop up “a dysfunctional and cruel health care system.”

But on Tuesday, Sanders insisted his former rival would fight to “build a nation that is more equitable, more compassionate, and more inclusive” and offered half-hearted praise to Biden on their signature bone of contention: “While Joe and I disagree on the best path to get to universal coverage, he has a plan that will greatly expand health care and cut the cost of prescription drugs.”

Even in tone, Sanders was downright Bidenesque, dropping his ordinary “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” style in favor of a pitch across the aisle: Against the threat of Trump’s authoritarianism, he said, “I will work with progressives, moderates, and yes, conservatives to preserve this nation.”

Even so, while the recriminations that marked the primary weren’t to be seen, the fault lines were still apparent. Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a brief speaking slot, in the role of seconding the Sanders nomination for president. Unfamiliarity with DNC procedure led some outlets to characterize this as a rebellious move akin to Cruz’s, but in reality having someone second Sanders was a procedural requirement—he still had delegates pledged in support of him, after all.

What was notable about AOC’s remarks wasn’t that they didn’t mention Biden—it was that they didn’t mention Trump. Her speech was barely about the election at all: It was a Sanders-style ode to their democratic socialist movement:

In fidelity and gratitude to a mass people’s movement working to establish 21st century social, economic, and human rights, including guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages, and labor rights for all people in the United States; a movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia, and to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past; a movement that realizes the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few at the expense of long-term stability for the many, and who organized an historic, grassroots campaign to reclaim our democracy.

In a time when millions of people in the United States are looking for deep systemic solutions to our crises of mass evictions, unemployment, and lack of health care, and ​espíritu del pueblo​ and out of a love for all people, I hereby second the nomination of Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont for president of the United States of America.

It was as good as a promise that the Democratic civil war isn’t canceled—just postponed.

RNC Preamble: How to Succeed in Conventions Without Really Trying 

It’s not clear what we should expect this week. 

On the one hand, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in an interview this weekend that we should expect a positive, uplifting message. “The big contrast you’ll see between the Democrats’ doom and gloom, Donald Trump-obsessed convention,” she said, “will be a convention focused on real people, their stories, how the policies of the Trump administration has lifted their lives, and then an aspirational vision towards the next four years.”

But maybe she’s talking about a different convention. Because President Trump said just a few days ago, “if you want a vision of your life under Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago, and imagine the mayhem coming to your town, and every single town in America.” 

Regardless, when I watch a party convention, I’m looking at a few different aspects so I thought I would share with you how I am judging this week.

How much will they rely on Trump to drive interest?

Biden’s Thursday night speech was watched by 25 million people on television. What will Trump do to ensure he can top that number?

On Sunday afternoon, the RNC released the full line up of speakers for each night, including President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Trump children—Ivanka, Tiffany, Eric, and Don Jr., Vice President Mike Pence, Govs. Kim Reynolds and Kristi Noem, Sens. Joni Ernst, Rand Paul, Tom Cotton, Marsha Blackburn, and Tim Scott, Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Matt Gaetz, Elise Stefanik, and Jim Jordan, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. After some initial confusion, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has submitted taped remarks. Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones is the only Democrat on the list. 

We are also expecting to hear from Rudy Guiliani, Franklin Graham, Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann, Andrew Pollack (the father of Parkland shooting victim Meadow Pollack) Alice Johnson (whose prison sentence was commuted by Trump), and St. Louis couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who brandished guns as protesters walked through their gated community.

In case there was any doubt that this is no longer your 1980-2012 Republican party, one need only consider the names that are not on the list. The only living former Republican president, George W. Bush, is not speaking. Also not on the list: former vice president Dick Cheney, former Republican nominees Mitt Romney and Bob Dole, and former House Speaker Paul Ryan. Governors such as Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis are notably absent. No “rising star” types within the party are being specifically highlighted and no candidates from top-tier races. And, of course, there are the folks like John Kasich and Colin Powell who spoke at the other party’s convention.

Less surprising but worth noting for ratings purposes is the lack of celebrities and entertainers. There are none that I saw on the list.

We also know that the president himself plans to be involved every night, knowing that he always draws the most eyeballs with his “what will he say next” presence. Even RNC Chairwoman McDaniels seemed to acknowledge the reason, saying, “I’m not going to tell you when, because everybody’s got to tune in.”

Will there be any surprise speakers? Will Trump feel pressure to say something newsworthy each night to get people watching? If viewership numbers flag the first few nights, will it undermine the Republican argument about shy Trump voters and greater enthusiasm? 

Who they are targeting?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized the DNC convention this week, saying “as a young progressive Latina I know I was not the target audience for this convention. The target audience for this convention was white moderates who aren’t sure who they’re voting for in November. Do I agree with centering the programming on that audience? Not necessarily. I think we could have done more to rally turnout enthusiasm from our party’s base.” 

And, of course, she was right. The Biden campaign made it abundantly clear who they were speaking to last week. A neon blinking “hey, you, suburban lady!” would have been less subtle.

But they also did something else very smart, which Ocasio-Cortez failed to acknowledge. They ensured there were no “basket of deplorables” or “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion” moments. In an election where 96 percent of voters say their minds are made up, not handing the Trump team a turn out battle cry may be the most important thing the DNC accomplished last week. 

Trump handed the Democrats “it is what it is” right before their convention, from which they have tried to make plenty of hay with mixed success in my opinion. But the convention provides four days for Trump to get carried away and give them his own “47 percent” or “mission accomplished” moment. Then again, it’s never mattered before.

So who is Team Trump targeting this week? 

Sure, his base. No question he needs to turn up the enthusiasm numbers and drive turnout. ‘Twas ever thus. I expect a lot more red meat this week than we saw last week. But will there be any persuasion messaging? 

Trump’s not so subtle tweets give us one clue: “suburban housewives of America!”

But there’s a new suburban mom in town. The soccer moms identified by Bill Clinton and the security moms targeted by George W. Bush have been replaced by “rage moms.” The New York Times’ Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Medina described them thusly: “the struggle for child care, education and economic stability is fueling a political uprising, built on the anger of women who find themselves constantly—and indefinitely— expected to be teacher, caregiver, employee and parent.” 

And here was a fun fact: “mothers with children in the home were twice as likely as fathers to report participating in a protest, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from June.” 

Who will they direct their rage toward? The Biden team wants them to know that the president dropped the ball on the pandemic response and everything bad that has happened since March can be squarely laid at his incompetent feet. The Trump team wants them to believe it is the Democrats who are rooting for the economy to fail, for shutdowns to continue, and for schools to stay closed just so they can win an election.

Of course, the suburbs don’t look like they used to either. William Frey at the Brookings Institution describes them as “more dense, more diverse and less centered on nuclear families” than ever before. And those suburban women aren’t all “housewives” anymore either as this Reuters’ graphic illustrates.

The gender gap was big in 2016 and Trump won anyway. But he can’t bleed out more with white women. I expect any persuasion messaging from this week to be geared toward them. 

And remember: Even messaging that superficially seems like it’s targeting another group—on criminal justice reform, for example—is often aimed at suburban white women to reassure them that they are not associating with racism.

Will there be a bounce?

It doesn’t look like Biden changed many votes last week. That isn’t surprising given how few undecided voters there are. But he did see a jump in his favorability numbers, which at this point is a decent indicator of enthusiasm with his voters. One poll, Morning Consult, reported a 3 point rise for Biden to 51 percent—the highest they had recorded in a single day. ABC found his favorability jumped from 40 percent the week before to 45 right after the convention in their latest poll—but most importantly it went up 7 points among Democrats. Trump’s favorability remained steady in both polls at 43 percent and 32 percent respectively.

The problem with comparing the two, of course, is that the DNC’s programming was very much geared toward getting voters to “fall in love” with Joe Biden. (I’m falling back on the old “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line” trope here but some years it’s just true!) 

I doubt very much that the Trump team is specifically targeting his favorability numbers these days. After all, he didn’t need high favorables last time—although he was running against a candidate with the second lowest favorability of all time … second only to him. I’ll bet more likely they are looking at “who do you trust most on the economy” numbers. He is leading Biden by 10 points on that metric and that’s the No. 1 issue voters currently point to.

So I’ll be looking at his numbers on handling the economy to see if there’s a bounce. I’ll check in on favorability but doubt I’ll see one. And then, of course, races are expected to tighten around Labor Day anyway, so I’d want to see the current 8+ point gap shrinking down to about 6 for any sign that the convention mattered.

What are the different television networks going to air?

Yes, television viewership of the conventions continued to tick down this year and trust in the media overall continues to fall, but what different channels choose to air still tells us a lot about what was newsworthy and how much the network heads still believe their audiences are driven by the Trump “entertainment factor.” 

I’m expecting a lot of asymmetry in the two conventions and TV executives aren’t going to like it.

For the most part, there were no interruptions for punditry and analysis during their coverage of the DNC convention unlike previous years. But the DNC convention was formatted to do exactly that. The RNC has said that they want to do a lot more live and that will be even more challenging both in terms of the technical work involved but also keeping it varied enough to hold people’s interest. How will networks address the “bias” of cutting away to their pundits during one convention and not the other?

During his press conferences, Trump has relished the spotlight but the television media has struggled with what to do about fact checking him in real time. A four-day convention will magnify that problem several fold. The Democratic convention was largely devoid of factual statements—dedicated almost entirely to Biden’s character. That’s unlikely to be the case this week once again creating an asymmetry between the conventions. How will the television folks address things said by the president or statements by other speakers in real time? 

And so it begins. I’ll do my best to tweet out thoughts (@whignewtons) about these topics as I stream the convention from my laptop, my husband watches the NBA on our television, and the brisket sleeps blissfully unaware that our nation still has a political tradition that is this … (I’m at a loss for what word I really need here. Let me know what adjective you think is most appropriate in the comments).

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.