Conventions Can Boost the Incumbent. Did It Work This Time?

The last two presidential re-election campaigns followed a similar playbook: define the opposition early on the most important issue, emphasize a few cultural wedge issues to rally the base while appealing to a few swing voters, and reinvigorate supporters at the convention. It was enough for George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012 to flip their approval ratings from negative to positive, and to win re-election.

With that history in mind, this week’s Republican convention was one of the last, best opportunities for the president to revitalize his political standing. We’ll have to wait until mid-September — when polls stabilize after any convention bumps — before it’s clear whether Mr. Trump has succeeded like Mr. Obama or Mr. Bush. But judged against its predecessors, this year’s Republican National Convention differed from the traditional playbook in ways that raise doubts about whether Mr. Trump should be expected to make a breakthrough.

The 2004 and 2012 re-election campaigns are probably best remembered for their success in defining the opposition. In each case, the convention offered a clear and simple answer to the question: “Who is the opponent?” And the answer reflected poorly on the ability of that opponent to address the central challenge facing the country.

Mitt Romney was depicted as a rapacious plutocrat who personally embodied the policies that were eroding middle-class industrial jobs in the Midwest. John Kerry was depicted as a flip-flopper and a phony, who tried to have it every way on the Iraq war and whose indecision would threaten national security.

Trump strategists have struggled to send a similarly focused message about Joe Biden. They have cycled through attacking him via his son on Ukraine, or on his long record in Washington. They have called him “Beijing Biden,” or tried to portray him as a nearly senile “Sleepy Joe.” The Trump campaign has also sought to tie him to the far left, either by asserting, often wrongly, that he supports far-left positions or by suggesting he’s a stealth candidate — a “Trojan horse” for socialists and radicals.

All of these attacks were raised at the convention, to some extent or another. The sheer range makes it less likely that any given attack will have the impact of, for example, the focus on Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital, “flip flopping” or “crooked Hillary.”

The most central attack was probably the claim that Mr. Biden was a stealth candidate of the left, who wasn’t tough enough on violent rioters and would allow chaos to spread throughout the country. It’s a strange move in some ways. Mr. Biden ran as a moderate in the Democratic primary and says he opposes violent protests. And it will be fairly straightforward for Mr. Biden to rebut the attack that he supports defunding the police, given that he does not, provided the campaign is sufficiently committed to doing so. He could even turn it into a positive.

Another limitation is that violent crime is not exactly the central issue of the election, at least not now, during the pandemic. It is not like terrorism in 2004 or the economic recovery in 2012. Instead, it somewhat resembles a wedge issue: one where you hope to energize your base and peel off a subset of swing voters who agree with you. The 2004 and 2012 campaigns also relied on a series of cultural wedge issues, like gay marriage in 2004, or immigration and defunding Planned Parenthood in 2012. But these weren’t the central message of the campaign.

To be sure, crime, protests and riots are more than a classic wedge issue. They have added up to one of the major story lines in the news in the last few months. There have been demands for statue removal and defunding the police; sustained demonstrations in Portland and Seattle; and the recent unrest in Kenosha, Wis., after another police shooting. A Pew Research poll found that violent crime ranked as the fifth-most important issue. And it is certainly possible that events could elevate the issue even further over the next few months.

There are also at least some reasons to think the issue could ultimately be effective for the president. The polling data is fragmentary, but Black Lives Matter appears to have become less popular over the summer as it argued for more ambitious goals and as the memory of George Floyd’s death in police custody began to fade.

Polling from Civiqs and Marquette Law School suggests that Black Lives Matter is now about as polarizing as the president is, so Republicans have less to lose by engaging on the issue. The Trump team can hope that the movement’s popularity might continue to decline further with additional unrest.

On the other hand, the president’s handling of these issues has not been popular, either. The unrest is happening in Mr. Trump’s America, not Mr. Biden’s. And this issue could be a little too tied to the news: Unlike terrorism in 2004 or the economy in 2012, it could fade from the spotlight and once again leave the party without a persistent line of attack.

Taken together, the attack here is not nearly as strong as the one Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama advanced in their last re-election campaigns. Adding to the problem, Mr. Trump’s speech was exceptionally focused on disqualifying Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump mentioned Mr. Biden, by name, several dozen times during his speech. Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush each mentioned Mr. Romney and Mr. Kerry by name just once, and referred to their “opponent” a mere seven and eight times.

The absence of the challengers from the incumbents’ speeches in 2004 and 2012 hints at a forgotten element of those conventions: They managed to reinvigorate support and improve the president’s approval rating by at least a net three percentage points. Remarkably, this elevated approval rating lasted all the way until the election.

Some of the work was done by high-profile speakers, like Rudy Giuliani in 2004 or Bill Clinton in 2012. But the presidential speeches probably contributed. They outlined a governing agenda and focused more on advancing a positive vision than on attacking opponents. They gave many former supporters, who might have been disillusioned by middling economic growth or a quagmire in Iraq, reason to return to their old favorite — and to feel good about doing so.

Mr. Trump certainly had at least some opportunity to lure back any disaffected supporters. The national political environment has been gradually improving for him, as coronavirus cases decline, the stock market reaches record highs, and as voters appear to grow chillier to Black Lives Matter.

It’s hard to say whether the changing national political environment adds up to a clear opening for the president. An improving national political environment for the president might still be a bad one, with more than 180,000 people dead from the coronavirus and double-digit unemployment.

But heading into the convention, the president’s approval rating had already ticked up to minus-10 in the FiveThirtyEight average of registered or likely voters. It’s a weak figure, but only a few more points would bring the president back to the point where he could hope for a polling error and a relative advantage in the Electoral College to give him another upset victory.

It’s hard to predict, of course. It’s possible that the president’s playbook will work just as well as, or even better than, those of Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama. Perhaps Mr. Trump has more supporters to try to win back. And Mr. Trump will have other opportunities to claw back into a tighter race, including the debates. But a seemingly weaker attack, on an issue less central to voters, by a less popular president, is not an obvious plan for an equally successful convention.

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