The so-called “rebound,” the bump, has happened. The Republican National Convention last week gave Donald J. Trump a handful of extra points in the polls. It seems that’s all he needed, according to Reuters-Ipsos, to reach a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton, who until now had always carried a strong lead over her rival. (Other polls show Trump with a firm lead.)
The media attention in recent days was entirely concentrated on the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and, as usually happens at party conventions, the spotlight bumped the candidate in the polls. In 2012, for example, during the late-August convention in Tampa, Mitt Romney jumped five points, suggesting he would beat Obama. But that did not go well.
A legitimate question
Who knows what will happen this time? True. But in the first place, can we even trust the polls? That’s a legitimate question, especially considering that a convention can in fact “enhance” the numbers.
Figures aside, however, what happens in a convention should be taken very seriously, even when the show primarily concerns policy substance, understood as a programmatic platform and the celebration, after a fierce internal fight in the primaries, of an achievement. It’s a chance to build cohesion in the ranks of the party, looking forward the challenge in November when the Oval Office is at stake, alongside hundreds of seats in the House, Senate and local offices. Conventions work best when the party rallies behind a candidate who can unite the party with a well-aligned vice presidential nominee.
The convention is the moment when the presidential ticket is officially presented, and the candidate takes the floor to introduce a possible future vice president to the delegates. The first mate is not a figurehead: Vice presidents impact the election campaign in the crucial months ahead and go on to help manage the administration. There are several examples of bad picks who compromised presidential campaigns and, conversely, well-aimed choices that strengthened vulnerable candidacies.
The convention then, is the culmination of a tough, long internal battle that began in the snow and cold and finished in the heat of June. But above all, it is the moment that “defines” the contours and direction of the campaign war that will follow in the four months until Nov. 8.
Inevitably, therefore, the comparison — this time more than in previous occasions — between the Republican convention, that has just ended, and the Democratic one, which has just opened in Philadelphia.
The defections of Cleveland
At the Cleveland convention, the New York mogul confirmed his talent for dominating the scene — or rather in creating a scene and then turning scandals in his favor which for any other candidate could spell disaster.
The Republican National Convention was marked by the defection of establishment Republican bigwigs and the open challenge of GOP sore loser Ted Cruz against Trump. The upheaval confirmed The Donald’s policy proposal boils down to one word: me. And the Republican Party? If it wants, it can follow me.
Bernie Sanders, replicating the appeal of the Republican nominee, addressed his supporters who say they would never vote for Clinton, offered the answer he presented in the primaries. He tweeted sharply, “Is this guy running for president or dictator?”
A dictatorial campaign
Taking Bernie’s tweet to the extreme, Trump’s race to the White House could be considered as a sort of modern Mussolini. A candidate-leader, who — unlike the predictions of the bulk of our national analysts — has no intention either to move to the center or tone the message down, nor to involve other prominent figures of the party. And in any case, many of them are reluctant to cozy up to Trump, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, or are downright hostile to him, like George W. Bush, Romney, John McCain and many others.
It will be a lonely campaign with all the attacks focused on Trump and his character, with the vice presidential candidate Mike Pence acting as a lackey, a purely decorative figure (unless he proves to be a fatal handicap for The Donald). In short, a “dictatorial” campaign.
The convention confirms this scenario, acting as a preview of what you’ll see and hear from the Trump circus from now on. The paradox is that, had he tried to soften his tone, he would have lost his base, the rancorous and frantic white electorate that brought him to where he is now and wouldn’t have understood a reasonable Trump.
What to expect in Philly
Faced with this prospect, the Philadelphia convention will offer an opposite scenario. Sanders will have a place of honor, and his proposals will echo both in Clinton’s acceptance speech and in the programmatic platform. If the inclusion of Sanders is sincere and not just play acting, the expected objections of the most demanding Sanderistas should be marginal. (You’ll see the opposite in the Cruz-Trump feud.)
Clinton will be flanked by all the big names, from Barack Obama to Elizabeth Warren. The Democratic Party also wants to prove that unlike the GOP it is a plural, open party, a political force that aspires not only to presidential continuity, but also to the recovery of the majority in Congress.
The choice of Tim Kaine goes in this direction. According to Patrick Healy of The New York Times, his designation reflects a strong optimism in the Clinton team, the optimism of those who envisage Hillary already sitting in the White House. Where a long-time, experienced and calm (even boring) political figure like the senator from Virginia would be complementary to Madam President.
It the Clinton campaign’s outlook were not so rosy, the choice of the vice would would have been a figure more useful — more than Kaine already is — to the election campaign: for example, a woman, an African-American or a Hispanic from a pivotal swing state.
The challenge for the Democrats gathered now for four days in Philadelphia will be to focus less on the clash of personalities — even if Trump will try his best to do so — and more on the two diametrically opposed perspectives on politics and on America’s future.
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