The 23rd of August, 2020

Some political predictions I can look back on later

It’s a big day. Joe Biden gave the best speech of his political career at the DNC (Democratic National Convention) last night, and in two days Donald Trump will kick off a week-long RNC (Republican National Convention). No one knows quite what will happen, so it’ll be fun to dive in and guess.

Donald Trump has a lot of experience in front of cameras, and a massive ego about it. He believes no one puts on a better show than him, and reports say he spent all week analysing and critiquing the DNC’s production. He’s been demanding last minute changes as he strategises how he and the Republicans can upstage the Democrats.

In Trumpworld, some like to say “Let Trump Be Trump.” The thinking is that Trump can’t summon any of his charisma or energy when he’s on a tight leash, so you just have to let him loose. It’s a risky strategy, but one that often pays off. So say the true believers.

There’s another point of view in Trumpworld, and it says that Trump’s instincts will always steer him back to his base rather than expanding his coalition. And this strategy is a losing one, because Trump fans don’t need more red meat. It’s the moderates he needs to reach, and “Let Trump Be Trump” turns them away.

These advisors — and I’d be one of them if I worked on the Trump team — think Trump needs to stay on message or else he’ll continue to lose. These point out that running as a challenger is very different than running for your second term, and requires a different approach.

Sometimes Trump shows some discipline, maturity, or humility and I get nervous. After all, if Trump can manage to moderate his message for longer than about three days at a time, he might make progress in the swing states. And if he makes enough progress there, he might eventually scrape together enough votes to win re-election. As someone who wants him to lose, I don’t want him to moderate himself, because it’s how he’ll win.

Fortunately for Democrats, he only seems to be able to stay on message for a handful of days at a time. Which brings up an interesting question for the RNC. Will they try to start on message, knowing Trump will resist any attempt to tame him? Or will they start things off on Monday letting Trump be Trump?

Put yourself in his advisors’ shoes. Approximately 87% of America’s citizens are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. Covid has already killed 170,000 Americans and is out of control, unemployment is high, confidence is low, the $600/week stipend ran out, and people are freaked out. So what do you talk about? What messages do you emphasise this week?

One approach is to completely ignore how people are feeling and say America is doing great. You’d go big on success stories from fellow Americans and make people feeling warm and fuzzy about Trump’s America. It could work.

Another approach is to crack the door open just a tiny bit to reality. Say that things are tough right now, but that’s why Trump is the guy to fix it. I’ve been seeing evidence of his already in lines like “We built the greatest economy in the world, I’ll do it a second time.” Or the fact that Trump loves framing things as glorious comebacks. He’s likely to repurpose that into The Great American Comeback, a line he used in his State of the Union speech.

So those are some of the factors that are in play. Here’s how I think they’ll all coalesce. First, I think Stay On Message Trump is going to show up on the first day, and I think the GOP will come off sounding optimistic and strong in that first day. At least that’ll be the official strategy, and everyone will do pretty well with it, even Trump himself when he does his first night’s speech.

But I think a few things will happen. First, I don’t think it’s going to get very impressive ratings, due to Trump fatigue. His true believers will watch, and the media will dutifully report everything, but he won’t be able to own the spotlight as effectively as he used to. Throw in a gaffe or two, real or imagined, and I suspect the stories will be less “The Great American Comeback” and more “Here’s a Controversial Thing (Lie) Trump Said.”

Then I think the wheels will come off. It might not happen the first day, or the second, but there will come a point where Stay On Message Trump is going to get antsy and impatient. And he’s going to want more control, and more free reign to carry the convention through to its successful conclusion. Which increases the likelihood he tries to rally his base. Which increases the likelihood that swing states swing further from his grasp.

I think when the RNC is over next week, we’ll have witnessed two narratives all week. “Look at the Great American Comeback the Republicans Have In Mind” will be colliding with “Donald Trump Is An Extremely Polarising Figure.” And as always, the Trump story is going to beat out the GOP story.

After conventions, candidates often get a post-convention “bounce.” But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Trump buck yet another trend. I expect one of the smallest post-convention bounces ever, or for him to even lose ground.

We’ll see!

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