What to watch for at the Republican National Convention

Will Rahn
·Senior Editor
·7 mins read

So the country has now seen what a virtual convention can look like, and over the next few days we should get a sense of what kind of polling bounce the Democrats got out of it. At the very least, the party avoided disaster last week. With the convention over, Democrats seem both unified and, with Joe Biden at the helm, moderate in their approach. A Biden gave a convention speech that almost all viewed as a success.

That brings us to the Republicans, who will have their own virtual convention on Monday through Thursday. And because President Trump is lagging in the polls, the stakes are in some sense higher for the GOP. It needs to show that Biden is still beatable.

Most importantly, the Republicans need to show that they’re still worthy and capable of running the country, which is looking like an increasingly tough sell given the pandemic, the protests and the economic devastation that has followed in their wake.

On Sunday, the Trump campaign announced its convention speakers, which not only include the expected roster of GOP stars and Trump family members, but also Ultimate Fighting Championship executive Dana White, the St. Louis couple charged with waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters, and former Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann, among others.

Here are some things to look for while watching them and others speak at this week’s GOP convention.

Then-Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks at the 2016 convention. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Then-Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks at the 2016 convention. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

What is the Republican message as we enter the final stretch?

After months of promoting the Biden agenda as a progressive one, the Democratic convention was largely about the party rushing to the center. To the consternation of some on the left, the Democrats gave a lot of airtime to Republican crossovers like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who assured viewers that Biden will govern like a moderate.

So what will the GOP’s message be? For the past few months, Trump has pitched himself as the man who built the best economy in American history. That economy, in Trump’s telling, has been short-circuited temporarily by a virus that will one day disappear. And when it does, Trump says, he’s the only man who can return the economy to its pre-pandemic heights.

The other prong of this argument is that the Democrats are beholden to the “radical left,” that Biden is too weak to stand up to the “socialists” in his own party, and that the country will collapse into lawlessness should he win.

The problem with this message is that it doesn’t seem to be working. Even before the Democrats emphasized their political moderation this past week, polls had shown again and again that most voters seem willing to give Biden and company a crack at fixing things.

This presents a conundrum for the GOP, which has to decide whether to double down on what hasn’t been working or figure out a new way to sell its ticket.

Donald Trump, like all great entertainers, knows something about reinventing himself. But polls have shown only a limited pool of undecided voters who might be willing to give him a second look.

The most important thing he can do to reverse his decline in the polls, of course, is deliver a good, strong speech. Biden ended the Democratic convention with a showstopper. Can Trump do the same?

Another scene from the 2016 Republican convention. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post via Getty Images)
Another scene from the 2016 Republican convention. (Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Can the Republicans put on a show?

The Democratic Party can always depend on movie stars, musicians and athletes to show up for it. Unlike the GOP, Democrats have their pick of celebrities, which helped their convention this past week seem reasonably entertaining.

Perhaps more important, the Democrats have access to talent behind the camera — the producers and editors who understand how to make something that people will enjoy watching. Remember that segment about Biden’s friendship with John McCain? It was directed by Octavia Spencer and the Oscar-winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim. The video that introduced Jill Biden came courtesy of the makers of “RBG,” the film on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

So this is an area where the GOP is at a marked disadvantage. It doesn’t have access to the same pool of creative talent, which means it’s going to have to depend a lot on the good taste and star power of Donald Trump. And it won’t have A-list entertainers like Common and John Legend to break things up and let the speeches go down easier.

According to the New York Times, Republicans have tapped two producers of “The Apprentice” to help run the convention show: “Sadoux Kim, a longtime deputy to the ‘Apprentice’ creator Mark Burnett, is a lead consultant on the production. Mr. Kim once served as a Miss Universe judge when Mr. Trump owned the pageant. Chuck LaBella, a former NBC entertainment executive who helped produce ‘The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump,’ is also on the payroll.”

Trump, we all know, is more than anything else an entertainer. In the early days of his initial run for president, he consistently used the words “polls” and “ratings” interchangeably because this is all show business to him. The question now, after the Democrats’ star-stuffed convention, is whether he can put together the kind of spectacle that will keep viewers engaged without the help of Hollywood.

Balloons fall after Trump addressed the delegates at the 2016 convention. (John Locher/AP)
Balloons fall after Trump addressed the delegates at the 2016 convention. (John Locher/AP)

Will a post-Trump star rise?

While the Democratic convention in many ways surpassed expectations, it didn’t do all that good a job at introducing the party’s next generation of leaders. Unlike in 2004, when an Illinois state legislator named Barack Obama catapulted himself to national fame, there was no standout speech from an obscure lawmaker. Instead we had a mash-up speech from 17 “rising stars” on Tuesday that, with the possible exception of the already well-known Stacey Abrams, didn’t seem to herald the arrival of some great new talent.

There is no shortage of Republicans who appear to be mulling a White House bid in 2024, among them Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. All of them will be looking to deliver a standout performance at the convention, which as we learned last week is easier said than done when the proceedings are virtual.

Should any Republican up-and-comer make a lasting impression, it also might give us all a glimpse of what the GOP will look like after Trump. Will viewers at home go to bed impressed with a brash populist like Cotton or Hawley? Alternatively, after watching Trump pick unnecessary fights for four years, are they looking for a more conciliatory voice like Scott or Haley?

And of course we can’t forget about Vice President Mike Pence, a man who has never made a particularly memorable speech. The stakes are high for him — he no doubt is thinking of his own presidential run in four years, and he needs to show he can compete with his more exciting Democratic opponent, Sen. Kamala Harris.

All this is an open question. But we can reasonably expect that with Trump at the helm, the virtual Republican convention will be unlike anything that came before it. Who knows if it will be successful, but if you’re at all invested in the outcome of this election, it will be worth watching.

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