Most everything about this week’s Republican National Convention will be the polar opposite of last week’s Democratic National Convention, except for one thing. Each has an overarching goal of winning over Republicans.
Of course, this one similarity only further magnifies the dissimilar approaches of the Donald Trump and Joe Biden campaigns. Biden is aiming for the middle. Trump is playing to his base.
Biden’s convention strategy was to double down on decency. Testaments to Biden’s empathetic character, and dedication to his Catholic faith. Starring roles by rogue Republicans like John Kasich, who got more time than the socialistic Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Pledges to exercise bipartisanship, but no big policy pledges that could alienate swing voters.
The Democratic convention was far from a strictly positive affair. Several speakers, including vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and both Obamas, charged Trump with the loss of lives, the fueling of racial division and the undermining of the upcoming election, if not democracy itself. But Biden’s clear hope was to present himself to swing voters as a soothing balm for the past four yeas, and not give in to the desires of some in his party for political retribution and deeper polarization.
Trump will have his own attempts at political jujitsu. Alice Johnson, the African American woman whose life sentence for cocaine trafficking was commuted by Trump, is set to speak and discuss criminal justice reform (and perhaps, criticize Biden and Kamala Harris for not being progressive enough on the subject). A “Democrats for Trump” segment is on the schedule, though the participants are not yet known.
Otherwise, what is known about the convention program strongly suggests Trump will do what he does best: wage culture war and stoke his political base. Slated to speak are Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who received a felony charge after brandishing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters; Nicholas Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing teen who was unfairly portrayed in some media coverage as mocking a Native American protester; Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood worker-turned-abortion opponent; and unnamed-as-yet speakers from Latin America who will warn America about the evils of socialism.
The presence of the gun-toting McCloskeys seems likely to overshadow the attempt to highlight Alice Johnson and woo African Americans. Sandmann and Abby Johnson, both Catholic, could be used to attack Biden on abortion, and try to prevent Catholic Republicans from embracing the one candidate who shares their faith.
Moreover, Trump himself reportedly plans to hog the spotlight, and speak during each of the convention’s four nights. Unless the chronically divisive president quite dramatically plays against type, the rhetorical bombardment seems likely to sharpen, not transcend, America’s political fault lines.
Biden is asking swing voters and disillusioned Republicans to put aside differences, focus on common ground and “find the light.” Trump appears poised to urge these same Republicans: remember what you hate about Democrats — their views on guns, abortion and religion — and view any Democratic victory as a slide toward socialism.
Biden is not the first politician, upon entering the general election phase of the campaign, to pivot towards the center and try to build a broad coalition. And Trump is not the first politician to wield social issues designed to drive wedges through the electorate and complicate attempts by opponents to build a broad coalition.
What’s unusual is seeing these two strategies deployed with such force at the same time. Trump has done so little over the course of his 3½ years as president to broaden his appeal that he has little choice but to believe his base can once again thread the Electoral College needle. Biden defied conventional wisdom by talking as much as he did about bipartisanship while winning a partisan primary, so he has every reason to lean in even harder now. The result is a general election where both candidates are fighting over Republican and right-leaning independent voters.
That’s a battle Biden has been winning. Before the conventions, polls have generally found him performing a bit better among Republicans and conservatives than does Trump among Democrats and liberals. For example, in this month’s Fox News poll, in which Biden led Trump by seven percentage points overall, Biden got 8% of the Republican vote. That may not seem like much, 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.
We often assume Trump’s base is fervently loyal, while progressives remain tepid on Biden at best. However, tepid support beats lost support. Trump’s base has suffered demonstrable erosion. Biden’s base has not.
After a Democratic convention filled with heart-warming stories and appeals to national unity, a Republican convention filled with rhetorical grenades may feel jarring, even crazy. But there will be a method to that madness. Trump needs to get his base back to full strength.
The looming question for him is whether his old bombastic tricks can do the job, or has his own job in office shrunken his political base for good. Presumably, a combative convention will make for good television, and good television ratings, which Trump will no doubt spin as proof of success.
But the big test will be whether he gets a lasting post-convention bounce in the polls. Because after four nights of free TV time, if he can’t narrow the gap and reinvigorate his base, when can he?