Aug 29, 2020 66 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, your favorite newsletter rankin’ politics stuff. And, yes, that’s the best opening line we have late on Friday afternoon after two weeks of workshopped speeches about “the promise of America” and long nights worrying about how Joe Biden is going to destroy everything we hold dear. 

This week, we look back at the parties’ conventions and try to offer some takeaways— what worked, what didn’t, and who is going to be the Republican nominee in 2024. Let’s start by examining the experimental, virtual format and why you shouldn’t get your hopes up that this condensed, low-key version of a convention will endure.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo illustration by Olivier Doulery/AFP via Getty Images and Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images.

Rank 1

1. The Format

Will there ever be “normal” conventions again? Probably.

Since the reforms of the 1970s that bound convention delegates to primary voters’ preferences, conventions have served a mostly ceremonial role. Delegates have had no real need to meet in person to figure out whom the party should nominate as its presidential candidate, but they do so anyway, because the stupid television networks and the global press corps will give them four straight days of free media to make their general election case. The pandemic, which has a roguish sense of humor, effectively called out the informercial-ization of the modern convention by requiring the candidates to convert them into actual, nonmetaphorical infomercials. This presented advantages for the parties: They saved a lot of money on overhead, they muted intra-convention dissent, they shut out the press from writing any embarrassing, on-the-scene stories that would distract from the message. Parties had complete control of what viewers at home saw, with no room for unchoreographed surprises. What parties couldn’t simulate, though, was the applause of 10,000 people—Kimberly Guilfoyle learned this the hard way—or the enthusiasm the conventions are supposed to stir up in voters. Yeah, it’s fun for parties to save money and silence dissent. But once it’s safe to hold gatherings again—a theoretical eventuality—the party that doesn’t capture mass, in-person enthusiasm is the party at a disadvantage. Meaning, the pre-corona conventions: They’ll be back.

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2. The Coronavirus Gap

How would Republicans talk about the deadly pandemic? Well, very little.

Last week, we asked how Republicans would respond to the message the DNC hammered home: that Donald Trump had comprehensively botched the coronavirus pandemic leading to the loss of 170,000-plus lives and trillions in economic activity. Our guess was that Republicans wouldn’t devise a direct response and would, instead, try to distract with gimmicks. The Surge feels pretty good about that one. COVID-19 came up sporadically at the GOP convention, lost amid the more pressing business of defining Joe Biden as a suburbs-destroyer who takes his marching orders from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Antifa. The line that best summed up the RNC’s attitude toward the coronavirus came Thursday night, from UFC president Dana White. First, there was excuse-making (“No one person and no one place could have anticipated the challenges that COVID would bring”), followed by a dose of well, he tried ("But President Trump has faced all these obstacles head on”). But the best representation of the convention’s posture toward the issue wasn’t in any line of a speech. It was the image of hundreds of VIPs seated on the White House lawn cramped together with very, very few of them wearing masks. There is no magical winning message on the coronavirus for the Trump campaign. Its only hope is that voters by November care about it as little as Trump’s courtiers did Thursday night.

Rank 3

3. The Republican Message

“Donald Trump cares.”

Trump, who has always been unpopular, will have to strip the bark off of Joe Biden to win. But he also has to make critical demographics that have been trending away from him, like white suburbanites, not feel like they would be assholes by voting for Donald Trump. The persuasion message Republicans ran at the convention was that, even though it’s never been captured on video in the 50 years that Donald Trump has been a ubiquitous public figure and certainly not in the nearly four years he has been president, Trump is actually a really nice guy who cares about people beyond himself. He cares about Black people, he cares about Hispanic people, he cares about the children, he cares about women. What he and his team especially care about, though, is reversing polling that has consistently found Trump trailing Biden on the question of which candidate “cares about people like you.” The RNC presentation was a consultants’ effort to synthesize this “new tone,” which Trump himself is incapable of maintaining for longer than a news cycle. They did a decent job of it, at times. But in order for the presentation to have any lasting purchase, Trump—who now has taken back complete control of his self-presentation from the convention consultants—will have to show an as-yet-unseen prolonged ability down the stretch to mind his manners.

Rank 4

4. The Obamas’ Message

Trump can’t change.

A week after the end of the Democratic convention, the Surge can barely remember anyone who spoke. We do remember, though, the shared message from the party’s two leading communicators, Michelle and Barack Obama: Trump is incapable of changing. “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” Michelle Obama said. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.” Or, as Barack Obama put it, “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe.” This message makes a lot of sense for the Biden campaign: If you’re sitting on a substantial polling lead, your hope is that voters have made up their minds and are incapable of changing them—that new messages or approaches from the trailing candidate will fall on deaf ears. The more the broad anti-Trump coalition that Biden is trying to patch together, ranging from socialists to John Kasich, doesn’t believe that Trump can change, the safer Biden’s lead. Democrats want voters to believe that they’ve seen enough. And with Republican convention’s ratings both down relative to the Democratic convention and disproportionately made up of Fox News viewers, plenty of persuadable voters out there apparently agree.

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5. The Violations

Hatch Act, this is your moment.

The GOP convention broke new ground in using the trappings of government control for explicit political campaign purposes. A naturalization ceremony and a presidential pardon ceremony were both staged in the White House as videos to be used at the convention. The secretary of state spoke from a business trip in Jerusalem to promote his boss’s reelection. The White House itself was used as a setting for an explicit campaign speech, and fireworks that spelled out “TRUMP PENCE 2020” were launched from federal property following Trump’s speech. The Trump campaign is relying on hazy enforcement mechanisms of the Hatch Act, which generally forbids federal employees from engaging in overt political activity while on duty or in government buildings, as well as a belief that “nobody outside the Beltway really cares” about any of this. Hopefully there’s some backlash, because allowing the government to be openly used for political ends—without even an attempt at an excuse—isn’t a great precedent to set. The Surge hopes that the ridiculous image of the opera troupe serenading the Trump family after Thursday’s speech proves to be a step too far.

Rank 6

6. The 2024 Shadow Republican Primary

Sure Tim Scott or Nikki Haley is going to be the next nominee. Sure.

The Surge got a kick out of Monday night’s coverage of the GOP convention in particular. Speeches from Sen. Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley got rave reviews from Republicans in D.C. “Nikki Haley walks in tonight as the probable GOP front runner in 2024,” former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer tweeted. “She’s good. Calm, reassuring, strong and direct. She’s pro-Trump, while maintaining her own quietly powerful identity.” Scott, meanwhile, was praised for his optimistic speech, and how his own biography demonstrates the promise of America. Indeed, these were two of the strongest keynotes from a Republican convention that tried to reach persuadable voters. But the idea that Republican primary voters in 2024 will want a more mild-mannered, grown-up alternative to Trumpism runs into one big evidentiary hurdle: Republican primary voters really like Trumpism! It’s why they chose Trump in 2016 and why Trump is wildly popular among Republican primary voters now. Going by the available data of what we know Republican primary voters want—Trump!—Donald Trump Jr., who also spoke Monday night, would be a better bet for a 2024 front-runner.

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7. The Next Few Months

Take a deep breath.

We don’t have any more savvy observations about the dumb conventions, so we’ll use this final spot as a PSA: Please, reader, prepare yourself for the next few months. You thought the past six months stuck in your house worried about the plague and chaos and cops in your neighborhood were anxiety-inducing? Add “the final couple of months of an election in which four additional years of President Donald Trump will be on the line” to your list of stressors. The polls will tighten. And then there will be weeks after the election when the vote counts will still be in flux. It will soon start getting cold, too. It will get dark at 5 in the afternoon. Cold, dark, the coronavirus, regular flu, cooped up, protests, riots, tear gas, cops, debates, Donald Trump, provisional ballots. The broken mail system. Florida. Learn some breathing exercises, maybe?