A Strong Convention for a Weak Nominee

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 31-

This week:

  • Clinton gets a small boost from her convention
  • Fear, not love, will drive Clinton’s vote
  • Khan controversy

Convention bounce? Democrats staged a strong convention in Philadelphia, but for the weakest candidate they have nominated since at least Michael Dukakis.

The attempts to define and redefine Hillary Clinton were impressive, with Bill Clinton trying to humanize her and cast her as the change agent no one believes her to be. President Obama tried to redefine her as an Obama surrogate — the person who will represent him and his goals in a third Obama term.

But when the convention reached its climax, viewers were reminded of who Clinton really is — someone who has a hard time saying anything sincere. Her speech was deadly dull except when she was attacking Trump. Her unskilled and monotonic delivery (characteristic of all written speeches she delivers) made matters worse. Supporters in the crowd had to chant her name in order to drown out heckling from Bernie Sanders supporters.

And in retrospect, the business about attacking Trump is the key to the entire Democratic convention. Every successful speech focused on him. The attempts to define her — a candidate who unfavorables are nearly as high as Trump’s — were a waste of time. Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, and even the better parts of Obama’s speech all dedicated themselves to attacking Trump, and theirs were probably the only memorable speeches in what was a fairly well-choreographed event. Whether they are attacking Trump for pro-Putin sympathies or for his various remarks throughout the campaign season, attacks on Trump are the only thing

And so just as Trump turned the Republican primary into a contest that was all about himself, so has he succeeded in turning the general election into such a contest.

Bernie Bros: Given that Clinton is such an unattractive candidate with a serious trustworthiness problem, her only viable strategy for the general election is a relentless barrage of negative attacks against Trump.

It remains uncertain whether a large number on the Left will follow the lead of the bitter-ender Sanders supporters who caused so much trouble for Clinton at the convention, and vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein. They were stamped out procedurally and even lectured from the dais (by Sarah Silverman, no less), but those bitter-enders are voicing feelings shared even by some who will ultimately hold their noses and vote for Clinton.

Clinton is no Obama. And it doesn’t help her much that the U.S. has been more than ready to elect a woman president (provided it’s the right one) for decades, because that breakthrough just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. No one this side of elderly feminists feels enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton the way people once did for Obama, or for her husband during and after his impeachment, or on the other side for George W. Bush at the height of his 2004 re-elect, or for Ronald Reagan, to list a few modern examples.

Clinton cited the famous FDR quote in her convention speech — “nothing to fear but fear itself.” Yet it will be fear, not love, that drives the Democratic vote for Clinton. And as the experience of Obama’s elections demonstrates, love can be a much more powerful motivator than fear.

Eye on polling: Did the Philly convention help Clinton? It at least appears that it did. The Morning Consult poll, which showed Trump getting a healthy bounce from the Republican convention in Cleveland, suggested that Clinton had benefited from a seven-point swing, returning the race to roughly where it had been before. Clinton enjoys a slight three-point advantage but nevertheless remains stubbornly unable to poll higher than the low 40s. There is also a surprisingly large number (17 percent) of voters who still remain undecided. When Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson is offered as an option, he gets 11 percent, and Clinton’s lead grows to five points.  

The fact that Clinton’s own numbers went up only three points right after her convention, however, is a significant fact. The assumption that she has any chance of running away with the race is suffering a serious challenge at this point.

Still, it’s important to wait a moment here before judging the entire process based on a single poll. We will have a better idea of where the race really stands once there’s been more time to digest what happened.

One thing that Trump’s candidacy has challenged is the level of comfort that anyone can have with conventional wisdom. So when conventional wisdom seems to be confirmed by the first poll we see, it’s worth asking whether there isn’t a bit of confirmation bias at work. That’s something we’ll only be able to answer after a few other pollsters get a chance to sample the voting public for a few nights in a row post-convention.

Khizr Khan Controversy: Khizr Khan, with his wife standing silently at his side, spoke in one of the primetime slots before Hillary Clinton’s speech. Based on where they scheduled it in the program, Democrats clearly underestimated it. It was not billed as a major address, and it was not especially long, but the Democrats could have cancelled Clinton’s dull speech (and Chelsea Clinton’s pathetic introduction) after he delivered it and been satisfied with how their convention had gone.

Khan is the father of an Army officer who was killed in Iraq. Trump’s original Muslim border-entry policy might have barred people like Khan from entering the U.S. (Trump has since altered his proposal). Khan was somewhat resentful of this, given that his son had died defending the United States, and Trump never served. 

This was the gist of his unexpectedly strong speech. But the whole thing probably would have ended there, had Trump not managed to extend its political life over the weekend. His reaction Sunday provides an illustration of why message discipline matters so much in politics, and why conventional politicians make such a point of remaining “on message,” even to the point of tedium.

When asked about the Khan speech, the best thing Trump could have done was probably what his running mate and other Republicans eventually did — praise Khan for his family’s sacrifice, and explain why his criticisms were wrong.

Instead, Trump was Trump. He went on offense. He said of Khan: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”

Whatever your opinion of this comment and its religious overtones, it guaranteed that Khan’s speech would be the main focus of coverage throughout the weekend and today — and perhaps for a few more days. It also immensely boosted Khan’s value as a surrogate speaker for Clinton between now and November, and — who knows? — perhaps it has even cleared the way for him to begin his own political career.

This sort of thing helps demonstrate why politicians and political professionals habitually (and often annoyingly) behave the way they do, and why so many Republicans have concerns about the nomination of someone who relishes tearing up the rulebook. Those rules exist for a reason, after decades of trial and error by various campaigns by untold numbers of candidates for major and minor office in both parties. If it isn’t on your talking-points list, or on an issue where you are more knowledgeable than your audience and your questioner, you just don’t say it.

Trump’s messaging: Trump’s wildness has often worked in his favor this election season. He has a habit of squelching up bad news with a new but more ephemeral outrage.

And this is 2016, when it’s impossible to say he won’t pull this one off, too. Yes, Trump might skate past this bump in the road, the way he has skated past so many other controversies. But message discipline is practiced widely because it matters. It helps keep a campaign that is going well on the right track, and it helps prevent a campaign that is going badly from falling further behind. When candidates go off message, there is often a high opportunity cost.

Trump could have made a lot more out of this weekend than he did. New economic numbers suggesting weak growth gave Trump ammunition for attacking Obama’s record and the promise he had laid out in convention about Hillary as his third term. Clinton’s convention speech had been a real dud, and early post-convention polling hints that this will be a real race.

Trump’s high-risk strategy of personally counterprogramming the Democratic convention may have (counterintuitively) helped him, even if his joke about Russia finding Clinton’s emails caused some journalists and Democrats to get the vapors.

But the Khan controversy — unless it was designed to get people to stop talking about Russia — seems more like a simple error, and the sort Trump doesn’t want to repeat.

Political journalist Robert Novak used to note that one of Ronald Reagan’s greatest strengths as a candidate came from his acting career. He was relatively disciplined because he was accustomed to taking direction. Trump might benefit from paying attention to this virtue.