Donald Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday night was interminable, sprawling, and littered with superfluous lines.
But it also included some finely tuned themes that were repeated over and over during the four-night infomercial called the Republican National Convention, starting with the timely issue of law and order.
“If the Democrat Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag-burners, that is up to them,” Trump declared, “but I, as your President, will not be a part of it. The Republican Party will remain the voice of the patriotic heroes who keep America Safe.”
At first blush, this might sound like red meat for the MAGA crowd. But this sort of message was also targeted at the suburbs, where Republicans are betting that tolerance for civil unrest is being exhausted and that there’s an opening there for wooing soft Trump voters, which was a focus of both parties’ conventions this year.
There’s no question that bringing erstwhile Republicans (and swing voters who lean Republican) back home is something Trump has to do—even if it’s merely the first step toward winning re-election. In a recent Fox News poll, Biden garnered 8 percent of the Republican vote. “That may not seem like much, notes liberal writer Bill Scher, “but it’s double what Trump got of the Democratic vote. And Biden did even better among conservatives with 21%, while Trump got only 12% of the liberals.”
The question is whether one convention (even a good one) can repair a relationship that has been deteriorating for four years. Do flowers and a fancy week-long vacation make up for four years of neglect and abuse? Maybe, if you're desperate and believe your other options are even worse. Besides, divorce is painful. At least, that’s what the thrice-married Trump is banking on.
What I’m saying is that, unlike a lot of what comes out of Trump’s mouth and Twitter feed, this convention was strategically planned. Now, I'm not suggesting it was entirely coherent, consistent, or sophisticated, but consider how much tribute was paid to the voters Trump has to woo back home.
Let’s start with suburban college-educated women. This convention burned a lot of calories courting them, partly, by seeking to humanize Trump. One overarching theme was that Trump is actually a really good guy (even if that’s hard to believe). Consider press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who talked about how Trump phoned her after she had a double mastectomy; or Dan Scavino, who started as Trump’s golf caddy and is now his social media director; or Ivanka, who shared that Trump displays a Lego replica of the White House his grandson made him; or former federal prisoner Alice Johnson, who said: “When President Trump heard about me, about the injustice of my story, he saw me as a person. He had compassion.” I could go on.
Similarly, the inclusion of so many minority speakers was a conscious effort, albeit one not reflected in Trump’s cabinet or inner circle or political party.
Perhaps, ironically, the second half of Trump’s appeal to minorities involves the civil unrest in the streets. “During their convention,” Trump said on Thursday night, “Joe Biden and his supporters remained completely silent about the rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-Run Cities. In the face of left-wing anarchy and mayhem in Minneapolis, Chicago, and other cities, Joe Biden's campaign did not condemn it—they donated to it. At least 13 members of Joe Biden's campaign staff donated to a fund to bail out vandals, arsonists, looters, and rioters from jail.” He then introduced family members of fallen police officers, who were in the crowd.
Will it resonate? Sarah Longwell, founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, recently ran two focus groups, consisting of white, college-educated women who voted for Trump in 2016 but had grown disillusioned by him. Both groups were demographically identical, but the first group had not heard about Kenosha, and were “sympathetic to the protestors.” The second group had heard about the unrest in Wisconsin, and expressed dramatically different views. “Two of the undecided voters said that the unrest made them more likely to vote for Trump,” noted Longwell (her italics). Kenosha could be a turning point.
Another pretty clear goal of this convention was to persuade Christian conservatives who are turned off by Trump’s uncompassionate rhetoric or policies that Biden’s pro-choice position and reversal on the Hyde Amendment is a deal-breaker. “Democrat politicians refuse to protect innocent life, and then they lecture us about morality and saving America's soul?” said Trump on Thursday night. “Tonight, we proudly declare that all children, born and unborn, have a God-given right to life.” This sentiment was echoed by several speakers like Abby Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, and Sister Dede Byrne, of the Community of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. I can't think of a Republican convention that has devoted this much primetime coverage to the issue of abortion.
A lot of the convention was about shoring up these two groups of “soft Trump” voters. But if two-thirds of the convention was about getting Republicans to vote like Republicans, there was one area where the convention seemed to go on offense: the prominent presence of Black men like Sen. Tim Scott, former NFL star Herschel Walker, and Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones, just to name a few.
Again, some of this could be seen as a sort of “ricochet pander,” meant to reassure suburban voters that they can vote for Trump in good conscience—without supporting a racist. But I also suspect Trump is making a play to peel off African-American men (which is consistent with his campaign’s encouragement of Kanye West’s independent bid). As far as I can tell, this is the only area where the convention is proactively attempting to poach voters who might normally be considered a solid part of the Biden coalition.
The point here is simply that this convention was strategically designed to target specific types of voters. If it didn’t appeal to you, it might be that you’re not among the cohorts being targeted.
If the strategy works (and I think the biggest flaw is assuming (a) that people are watching, and (b) that Trump won’t just undermine the efforts with a tweet next week), Trump may be back in the game. Bringing home wayward sons and daughters will cause the polls to tighten, and that, alone, would be an important development for a candidate who has been consistently down for months now.
It's vital for Trump that his base continues to believe there is a path to victory. Otherwise, its morale will crack.
If the RNC has done its job, the race is reset, and the fall campaign begins in earnest after Labor Day.
Trump’s convention is over. But the real fireworks are about to begin.