“We made America great,” Pence declared in Baltimore. “With President Donald Trump in the White House for four more years, and with God’s help, we will make America great again. Again.”
The president had fixed America; the president would fix America. As the convention opened, polling found that Americans who believed the country was on the “wrong track” outnumbered those who saw it on the “right track” by 44 points. The premise of the RNC's 10-hour TV schedule was that the country's biggest problems had either been resolved for good or were resolved before, as Pence put it, “the coronavirus struck from China.”
As overworked fact-checkers pointed out, the convention played unusually loose with the truth, with speakers frequently accusing Democrats or Biden of supporting policies the nominee and House leadership have rejected. Democrats had been more careful at their convention, and the actual styles of the events diverged more than ever: Democrats created a virtual and remote event, while Republicans stuck as closely as possible to a traditional format, even leaving in footage of pretaped speakers walking to and from a lectern. The Democrats' big show felt like the sort of pop-documentaries that have exploded in the Trump years; the RNC shared most of its DNA with the annual CPAC convention and the programming on Fox News.
Still, this convention represents the last time the GOP will have to present a message unfiltered and unanswered, and without a script-less president veering into topics that strategists want left alone. With no party platform this year, and no mention so far of the 50-point agenda the Trump campaign released for a second term, here's what we saw across the first three nights:
America was already great. For all that Democrats pulled off last week, they have yet to convince a plurality of voters that Biden would do a better job guiding the economy in the next few years than the president would. Their convention, like Biden's campaign, ran every issue through the filter of the coronavirus, which has dynamited the economic numbers that Trump intended to run on.
At the convention, as in Trump's own speeches, the coronavirus has been portrayed as a distraction from an otherwise unstoppable economic growth program. Two sets of economic numbers appeared again and again: the job and unemployment data from February, before the effects of the pandemic bit down, and the job numbers from this month, which found millions of Americans rejoining the job market, though at lower rates than before.
“He delivered the best economy in our history and he will do it again,” said Bob Vlaisavljevich, the mayor of Eveleth, Minn., and one of just two elected Democrats to address the convention.
Like the Democrats, Republicans relied on non-politicians to deliver the economic message. The two sets of endorsers described different worlds — one in which Trump's trade policies had gutted rural America, one where he'd brought it back. Democrats talked little about the bipartisan Cares Act, or their own additions to the USMCA; that made it easier for Republicans to give all the credit for those achievements to the president. And that's a choice, as previous candidates have decided to highlight times they brought parties together, while Republicans portray Trump as the prime mover, doing what nobody else could.
This also produced some remarkable speeches about foreign policy that put Republicans on the side of anti-interventionism, perhaps for good. Former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell lumped Biden in with elites who had “engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan, and tried to export democracy to Iraq.” Half of the Republican ticket had backed those decisions, as did some of the Republicans who'll speak tonight, including Rudolph W. Giuliani and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). But what mattered was that in 2020, Trump retrospectively opposed them.
Abortion front and center. During the Democratic primary, even as he offered a more liberal platform than the party had four years earlier, Biden repeatedly declined to abandon his plans for ones advanced by protesters or left-wing candidates. As with the “defund the police” drama — a quote to a liberal activist about funding more social welfare is the basis for the charge that Biden would dismantle police departments — that has largely limited Republicans to chopping short Biden quotes or gaffes out of context or insisting that he'll be a “Trojan horse” for the activists he disagreed with.
The one big exception: abortion. In June 2019, Biden abandoned his support for the Hyde Amendment, language attached to must-pass legislation that prevents federal funding from paying for abortion, after 41 years of support. He's the first Democratic candidate to oppose Hyde, a major victory for abortion rights groups, which had struck Hyde from the 2016 party platform. It may might be the riskiest stance taken by a careful nominee; polls show that Democrats and liberal independents favor public funding for abortion, but basically nobody else does.
There was not much talk about abortion at the Democratic convention, and there'd actually been more four years ago, when pro-abortion rights speakers took the stage before prime time. The Republican convention repeatedly emphasized Biden's switch, with speeches every night about abortion and with former football coach Lou Holtz calling Biden a “Catholic in name only.” Pence went further, twinning an attack on late-term abortion with a reference to Hyde and saying Biden “supports taxpayer funding of abortion, right up to the moment of birth.” (Biden had supported a ban on “partial birth abortion” that was opposed by the left.)
The Trump campaign's advertising has been so focused on crime and Biden's age that abortion hasn't really come up. But the president's social conservative supporters consider him a hero on this, not just for his policy wins, but for his zeal-of-a-convert willingness to talk to antiabortion audiences and describe abortion itself in gruesome detail.
Cancel culture, not climate or Kamala Harris. As expected when Republicans announced their lineup, the prime time Republican convention repeatedly warned about a topic that didn't occupy other conventions: whether Americans could share political opinions without being criticized or hounded by the media. Leaving aside the logic of the presentation — can anyone be “canceled” if he or she gets time on TV to tell their story? — it was the purest appeal to a voter who Trump won and never lost in 2016.
It also took the place of some messaging that might have mollified the voters who he had lost, or the ones being told to worry about a Biden presidency. There was little mention of health care apart from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany's story about Trump comforting her after a mastectomy, which was both a character testimony and proof that he “stands by Americans with preexisting conditions.” (The administration's lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would automatically end its protections for preexisting conditions, was not mentioned over three nights.)
Similarly, there was no mention of climate change, with a focus instead on the Obama administration's energy policy and misinformation about Biden endorsing the Green New Deal. (To the consternation of the Democrats' left, he has praised their work while rejecting their call for fracking bans and a 10-year transition away from fossil fuel.) Gay rights, something Republicans suggested Trump would embrace, were mostly dealt with in a speech by Cassie Franklin Graham, who warned against Biden's support for transgender rights and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, even for religious organizations.
Before Biden picked Kamala D. Harris as his running mate, some Republicans suggested they would flip the script on him: Voters would be getting a young and more left-wing president if they elected an elderly Biden. If the party went there, it would meant the biggest focus on a presidential running mate since 2012, when Democrats ran against then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan's austerity budgets.
This didn't happen. Three-quarters of the convention passed without much mention of Harris, and what there was veered into incoherence. On Wednesday, not long after Sen. Marsha Blackburn warned that “Harris pushed to further restrict police, cut their training and make our American communities and streets even more dangerous than they already are,” former NFL player Jack Brewer warned that “Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris have collectively been responsible for locking up countless black men for nonviolent crimes.”
Peaceful protests, in retrospect. A series of speeches and video packages at the Republican convention have celebrated social movements that conservatives (though not the Republican Party itself) opposed at the time. Trump's pardon of Susan B. Anthony, which was controversial among feminists, got heavy promotion. Black speakers, who were heavily represented all week, argued not just that Trump was not a racist, but that Joe Biden was. That messaging was sometimes scrambled, with one speaker blaming Biden for “mass incarceration” and the next warning that he would unleash anti-police forces onto America's streets.
But there was a consistent theme in all of this: America had already beaten de jure racism, and all that was left to do was to treat people fairly. “In the end, segregation was abolished and our country moved a step closer to true equality for all,” said Clarence Henderson, a Civil Rights-era activist, in one taped segment. “That’s what an actual peaceful protest can accomplish.”
Speeches from Sen. Tim Scott and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, which were among the strongest all week, covered similar themes, sometimes making Biden's gaffes sound worse than they were. (Cameron claimed Biden had said there was “no diversity of thought in the Black community,” a mangling of a gaffe he'd made about the relative diversity of Black and Latino Americans.) Trump's pre-coronavirus record, funding for historically Black colleges and universities, and the creation of low-tax “opportunity zones” were presented as not just the solution for unrest, but the conclusion of decades of struggle for equality.
The effectiveness of this might depend on events. For weeks after dozens of businesses were burned down amid largely peaceful protests in Minneapolis, the Trump campaign deployed footage of the flames and embers in TV ads. By late July, with most voters saying they approved of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests proceeding without any property damage, Trump was lagging behind Biden badly. Last week, Democrats freely used footage from recent protests, and testimony from the family members of black people killed by police, to link themselves to the current social movement.
In its rolling survey, taken before the convention began, Democratic-friendly Navigator Research found voters believing that Trump had fulfilled his promises to “shake things up in Washington,” to “run the government like a business,” and to “put America first.” But by 16 points, voters thought had not “restored law and order to the country.”
Biden has led Trump in public polls since winning the Democratic nomination, something no challenger to an incumbent president has done since 1976. But Democrats remain traumatized by the 2016 election, bracing for an event — a hack of Biden campaign email, a coronavirus vaccine, mass voter suppression, riots that curdle public opinion of their party — to clip them at the finish line. The GOP's convention suggested that they, too, need events to intervene to prevent a president who's delivered for his base from losing swing voters — and the election.
“Mike Pence hopes four years of subservience to Trump will lift his political future,” by Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker
The long game of a toned-down vice president.
“How chaos in Kenosha is already swaying some voters in Wisconsin,” by Sabrina Tavernise and Ellen Almer Durston
Frustration with local Democratic leadership has some voters thinking about November.
“GOP voters say they enjoy the ‘Trump Show’ but want to see a plan for second term,” by Marc Fisher and Christine Spolar
What the president's base has wanted to hear at a convention targeted for them.
“Republican groups resume in-person events in Georgia,” by Greg Bluestein
A fundraiser for the GOP's state legislative campaign and a return to normal.
“Pence makes case for Trump as ‘law and order’ president while Blake shooting continues to reverberate,” by Seung Min Kim and Colby Itkowitz
How Republicans are handling the aftermath in Wisconsin.
“Donald Trump’s Republican convention is one big war on cancel culture,” by Henry J. Gomez
The message that leaped from conservative media to the RNC.
On the trail
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. — Robbie Goldstein had come to Theory Wellness to see a marijuana dispensary in action and to ask what its owners needed. What laws needed to be relaxed? What hurdles had the government created? If he was elected to Congress, Goldstein said, he was ready to help.
“Congressman Lynch has come out against the legalization of marijuana,” Goldstein said.
“Congress who?” asked Mike Bouquet, 33, a store employee.
“Congressman Stephen Lynch!” Goldstein said. “That’s who I’m running against.”
In five days, Massachusetts Democrats will settle more seriously contested primaries than they have in years. Sen. Edward J. Markey is facing a challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy. Kennedy’s open seat is the site of a free-for-all among eight Democrats, with no clear favorite. And two long-serving Democrats, Rep. Richard E. Neal and Rep. Stephen Lynch, are defending their seats against credible, liberal opponents.
“You never want to get caught sleeping,” said Neal, who is facing Holyoke, Mass., Mayor Alex Morse, in a primary that was rattled by a botched attempt to smear the challenger. “I take this very seriously. I’m pretty visible. Obviously, you have to be in the district, but you also have obligations in Washington. You have to combine politics, visibility, and a pretty keen mind for achievement.”
Massachusetts holds one of the last primaries on the calendar, and Tuesday’s contests will bring six months of liberal-versus-establishment challenges nearly to an end. Although Delaware’s Senate primary, which pits activist Jess Scarane against Sen. Christopher A. Coons, will come two weeks later, national liberal groups such as the Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party and the Sunrise Movement have focused most of their firepower on the Bay State.
The race between Kennedy and Markey has gotten the most attention, though it inverts the dynamics of the Neal and Lynch races, pitting a liberal, septuagenarian incumbent against a 39-year-old congressman who has polled best with independents. The House contests are testing the power of the left in a state where Democrats drew congressional maps to protect incumbents — and where modern incumbents rarely have to worry about challengers, unless they are engulfed by scandal or forced into new districts.
Morse, who was endorsed by Justice Democrats a month after declaring against Neal, had continued to build support on the left. Justice Democrats itself sent six staffers to organize him, while its PAC had spent $500,000 on ads. Fight Corporate Monopolies, a PAC formed this year to help liberal challengers, had already run commercials accusing Neal of siding with health-care donors and selling out patients; Neal was fighting to get a similar Justice Democrats ad off the air. And at the start of the campaign's final week, he got an endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.).
“There’s a very clear story to tell here,” said Fight Corporate Monopolies adviser Morgan Harper. “Richie Neal has not been on the side of his constituents on surprise medical billing, in a district that has seen the negative impacts of this consolidation of corporate power.”
The race in the 4th District, which was opened when Kennedy ran for Senate, has found seven candidates comparing their liberal bona fides — and one saying the district might swing too far left. Jake Auchincloss, a Marine veteran and city councilor in Newton, won early support and an endorsement from the Boston Globe. But alone among the candidates, he had worked for Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who is popular with Democrats, and he wrote a letter four years ago urging Newton North High School not to punish students who flew a Confederate flag.
In an interview, Auchincloss called himself a “Charlie Baker Democrat” and emphasized the liberal positions he would bring to Congress, such as support for a $15 minimum wage and opposition to the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I actually called for Charlie Baker in 2016 to endorse Hillary Clinton,” Auchincloss said. “I think has done a great job on responding to covid-19. He's been an exemplar of the type of pragmatic, science-driven, fact-based leadership that works in a time of crisis. And I would absolutely be a strong partner for him in Congress.”
Democrats with that sort of pitch won in swing seats in 2018 and have frequently won in Massachusetts. This year’s liberal candidates are arguing that voters can demand more. Most of Auchincloss’s opponents favor Medicare-for-all and a Bernie Sanders-style agenda, but they have jostled to prove who can win, while sparse public polling has found several candidates bunched together: Auchincloss, his fellow city councilor Becky Grossman, former Brookline selectwoman Jesse Mermell, and former banking regulator Ihssane Lecky.
Lecky, like many of the cycle’s challengers, has run as a candidate utterly untainted by corporate money. Grossman has touted her support from nationally known liberals, such as Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) — “the first vice chair of the Progressive Caucus,” she emphasized in an interview. Mermell, who won the early support of Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), has pitched herself as a legislator in the same mold — unabashedly liberal, with intimate knowledge of the political system.
On Thursday, businessman Chris Zannetos quit the race and backed Mermell, citing internal polling that showed no path to victory. (That poll, reviewed by The Trailer, showed Mermell ahead but no candidate polling higher than 19 percent.)
“I think that one of the reasons you're seeing the coalition and the coalescing around our campaign is because, as organizations and voters kick the tires, they're seeing that there's really one person in the race with the track record and the results to back up these positions,” Mermell said.
Goldstein’s race against Lynch is less complicated, with a steeper hill to climb: Lynch had defeated two challengers in 2018 with 71 percent of the vote. Goldstein had raised just over $468,000 for the race as of the mid-month filing deadline, but that was double any of Lynch’s recent opponents and not far off the congressman’s own total.
“This was a winnable race in 2018,” Goldstein said. “I think it was maybe a winnable race in 2016, as well. It is certainly a winnable race in 2020.”
Unlike the Morse-Neal contest across the state, the race in Lynch’s 8th District, which starts in south Boston, had not attracted much national money or interest. Goldstein was fine with that: He had beaten Lynch to the air, and sent mail to Democratic voters reminding them that Lynch was one of the only Democrats still in Congress who opposed the Affordable Care Act before its final passage. That issue helped sink a 2013 Lynch run for Senate against Markey, though the congressman carried his district.
Lynch was taking the race seriously, and had made news for grilling Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in a Monday hearing, well-timed for the primary. “I think we broke the bear a little bit and now he's starting to wake up,” Goldstein said in an interview before that hearing.
Joe Biden, “Keep Up.” A two-minute ad from a campaign that raised $70 million in the first half of August, this spot is basically designed to run during the Republican National Convention. Unlike some Biden ads, it showcases a desire to respond to a Trump critique directly, portraying Biden literally jogging and bounding up stairs and contrasting it with an image of Trump walking slowly down a ramp at the U.S. Military Academy's graduation this year.
Justice Democrats, “Change.” The PAC arm of the liberal group, which endorsed Alex Morse weeks into his challenge to Rep. Richard E. Neal, has drawn a complaint from the congressman for running this spot. It largely recapitulates Morse's argument, that Neal's willingness to take corporate PAC donations has hurt his ability to represent western Massachusetts. “Our entire lives, Richie Neal has been in Congress,” one young voter says. “He was fine, but now he's changed.”
Robbie Goldstein, “Our District.” The first-time candidate's ads portray the race in simple terms: A Democratic district doesn't need to vote for an antiabortion member of Congress. Goldstein's theory is that voters informed of the Lynch record will find a reason to dump him, so the ad plays his hits. “Congressman Lynch voted against the Affordable Care Act,” a narrator says. “Robbie Goldstein supports Medicare-for-all.”
Jessica Scarane, “A Better Future is Possible.” Challenging Sen. Chris Coons in Delaware's Sept. 15 primary, Scarane, a first-time candidate, says nothing about herself and focuses on a Bernie Sanders-style agenda: Medicare-for-all and a $15 minimum wage.
Massachusetts Senate primary (Suffolk, 800 likely voters)
Edward J. Markey: 51%
Joe Kennedy: 41%
Every public poll of next week's Senate contest has found Markey with a lead between the high single digits and mid-double digits. The reasons are consistent, too: The Massachusetts Democratic electorate is dominated by liberals (57 percent of the total), a large proportion of voters have college degrees, and both groups have broken for Markey. Kennedy's strength comes from less-educated voters and non-White voters, though young voters, who Markey has appealed to with his focus on the Green New Deal, break heavily against the 39-year-old candidate.
Pennsylvania presidential election (Franklin & Marshall, 681 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 49% (-1)
Donald Trump: 42% (+1)
Because it's next to Delaware, and because Biden was born in the state's northeast city of Scranton, Pennsylvania has gotten more attention from him than any other swing state during the coronavirus pandemic. He has led in every poll, but that doesn't soothe Democrats, who saw the same events unfold four years ago — plenty of attention from Hillary Clinton, plenty of poll leads, followed by narrow defeat. Trump has improved his numbers slightly since July, while remaining underwater at 59 percent job disapproval, and while 68 percent of voters say the country is on the “wrong track.” One other number to watch: Just 3 percent of Pennsylvania's likely voters say “crime” is their top issue, down from 8 percent before the start of the pandemic. Polling is mixed on how much voters trust Biden or Trump to tackle crime, but nearly two months of advertising accusing Biden of being anti-police and pro-chaos have not moved the needle.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Republicans challenged Joe Biden to speak out about the riots that broke out in Kenosha, Wis., after the weekend police shooting of Jacob Blake. Biden, who had been quiet at the start of Republican convention week, did so: in a short video posted on Twitter, the Democrat said that the video of Blake being shot in the back by a police officer made him “sick” and that he had spoken to Blake's family.
“Burning down communities is not protest, it’s needless violence — violence that endangers lives, violence that guts businesses and shutters businesses that serve the community. That’s wrong,” Biden said. The “wisest words” he'd heard, he said, came from Blake's mother Julia Jackson. “She looked at the damage done in her community and said this, ‘This doesn’t reflect my son or my family. So let’s unite and heal, do justice, end the violence and end systemic racism in this country. Now.’ ”
The Kenosha story, which unfolded in a Democratic city in a swing county (and, obviously, swing state), moved more quickly and with bigger political implications than weeks of protests and rioting in Portland, Ore. In a quirk of timing, because President Trump will not speak at length until tonight, Biden and Kamala D. Harris actually spent more time discussing the unrest than their Republican counterparts, at least initially.
On short notice, Biden appeared on MSNBC and CNN, repeatedly saying that the shooting and following unrest had happened “in Donald Trump's America” — a response to Trump campaign messaging, echoed by Vice President Pence, that Americans would “not be safe in Joe Biden's America.”
“He just keeps pouring fuel on the fire,” Biden said on MSNBC. “He’s encouraging this. He’s not diminishing it at all. This is his America now. If you want to end where we are now, we’ve got to end his tenure as president.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Trump had not specifically discussed the Blake shooting, though the 29-year-old's family said the president had tried to call them. On Wednesday, a Trump campaign spokesman called the shooting “very troubling,” but the president himself has focused on restoring “law and order” and dispatching the National Guard to Kenosha, where protests came and went Wednesday night without further violence. The campaign also said that Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old arrested after shooting into a crowd and leaving two protesters dead, had no association with the Trump operation, after BuzzFeed revealed that he had been in the front row of the president's last arena-sized Wisconsin rally.
… five days until the Massachusetts primary
… eight days until North Carolina begins sending out absentee ballots
… 12 days until primaries in New Hampshire and Rhode Island
… 19 days until the Delaware primary
… 24 days until early voting begins (in Minnesota)
… 33 days until the first presidential debate
… 68 days until the general election