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Political Conventions Forced to Adapt to Ongoing Crises

As an unusual convention season marked by social distancing and protests for equality comes to a close, political scientists reflect on how the parties adapted to the multiple crises.

(CN) — As an unusual convention season marked by social distancing and protests for equality comes to a close, political scientists reflect on how the parties adapted to the multiple crises. 

“We are all learning what to expect from a Zoom convention,” political scientist Chris Cooper told Courthouse News at the starting line of this year’s Republican National Convention.

Cooper, the head of the Department of Political Science & Public Affairs at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, said Monday’s program gave him something like mental whiplash.

As the fiery and divisive speeches of stalwart Trump allies like Kimberly Guilfoyle clashed with clips like that of South Carolina’s U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who spoke with softer appeals to reason, swift contradictions in tone and message seemed to fight over airwaves. 

Zooming out to look at the week as a whole, however, shows “moderate and extreme threads braided around each other,” Cooper said, noting that the two threads were most likely aimed toward two different audiences. 

Monday night of the RNC, he said, has been described by some as “a night to court black voters.” To Cooper, portions of that night’s convention appeared to serve as an “olive branch,” but not one extended to black voters.

Rather, he said, moments of racial inclusion and toned-down speech during parts of the production appealed to “moderate white voters who may not be comfortable with Trump’s divisive rhetoric” or with racial ideas associated with the Republican Party. 

In an interview, Steven Greene, a political science professor at NC State University, told Courthouse News a majority of the programming served to excite Trump’s base.

“That said, there has been some effort to strike a more welcoming tone from the likes of notably non-white speakers such as Nikki Haley and Tim Scott,” Greene said. “It's hard to imagine this would bring through all that much given the overall base-service of the convention, but there does appear to be some effort to expand the coalition or at least reach out to wavering Republican-friendly voters.”

According to a Pew Research poll from Aug. 13, 66% of Trump supporters say they support him “strongly,” while only 46% of Biden supporters say the same about the Democratic candidate.

In that poll, 23% of respondents who chose Trump said they support him “moderately” and another 11% said they “lean toward” Trump.  

Cooper said the risk of these voters completely switching over to Biden at this point is low but the demographic is more likely to skip out on Election Day. 

“The Trump vote is very deep, while the Biden vote is wide,” Cooper said, “The question is: ‘How deep does the support for Biden run?’”

At this point in the campaign cycle, there are far less swing voters than usual, which means viewers are more likely to be mobilized by the conventions than persuaded by them.

“The Republican base loves Trump and by giving the convention far more of the actual nominee than is typical, that is their effort to appeal to their base in a way Democrats cannot match,” Greene said.

When it comes to the spectacle, Greene said the RNC did not appear to attempt to outshine the Democrat’s earlier convention. 

“It's almost like they've thrown in the towel on that score. Consider the extremely well-reviewed Democrats' roll call of states versus the pallid parade of speakers in front of a generic background for Republicans. Now, they've had their shiny moments, too, but, they largely all center almost entirely around President Trump,” he said. 

Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, told Courthouse News he was interested to see how the two parties adapted their programming to the virtual format from the traditional arena-based rally.


“The Democrats did a variety of things that tried to take advantage of the new format. They had a variety of videos, music, ordinary people speaking from their homes, in addition to the traditional speeches from politicians,” Heberlig said. 

Some things worked well for the DNC, he said, contrasting the visuals of the Democratic and Republican conventions’ roll call nominations. But he said some things worked less well for the Democrats like Biden's moderating video-linked discussions.

When it came time for the Republicans to make their case, “They constructed their visual backdrop around American flags and stirring ‘movie music’ to make patriotic emotional connections to the audience,” Heberlig noted.

One key difference Heberlig saw this year was more reliance on ordinary people as speakers than politicians.  

“Typically, there are ordinary people who speak at conventions but they are not used to speaking in front of arenas with thousands of people so don't seem comfortable,” he said, 

“Having people speak from their homes as the Democratis did or just to the cameras as the Republicans did, seemed to allow the average citizens to speak more confidently and comfortably and thus I think they are likely to have connected better to the audience and been more persuasive.”

He added that those “ordinary people” have provided many of the emotional highpoints of both conventions.

An eighth-generation lobster fisherman from Maine, a Minnesota mayor, a police officer from New Mexico, and a Wisconsin dairy farmer were among the “ordinary people” during the Republican convention to attribute their wellbeing to Trump and the policy changes and environmental overhauls he has implemented during his administration.

“Part of the challenge of a convention is that the parties are trying to energize their hardcore supporters and to reach out to persuadable voters, how they balance this contradictory task,” Heberlig said, echoing Cooper’s analysis.

Democrats, he said, attempted to speak to both audiences by having a variety of speakers, from former Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich, to other more liberal speakers such as Bernie Sanders all vouch for Biden. 

“They emphasized the threat they see in what they see as Trump's authoritarian tendencies. They also emphasized Biden's character as an effective contrast with Trump and something that all Democrats can agree on, perhaps more than Democrats can agree on policy,” Heberlig said.

Republicans used a variety of speakers, promoted the Trump administration's accomplishments and “emphasized traditional themes of Americana,” during their convention, according to Heberlig.

“They have spoken to the base by painting the Democrats and the media as radical anti-speech socialists,” he added.

Woven throughout praise over Trump’s handling of racial issues and his work to improve the criminal justice system by speakers last week, were strong promises of “law and order” — a phrase associated in recent history with politicians’ support of mandatory sentencing laws, and other policies that disproportionately harm minority communities, in order to appear tough on crime.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls Trump’s usage of the phrase “a dog-whistle intended for his base.”

Trump has been criticized for his portrayal of equality protesters as anarchists. Recent polling finds that Americans believe the president is doing little to improve race relations.

Trump allies commended the president’s stance on criminal justice reform, including his passage of The First Step Act, a bipartisan bill passed by Congress in 2018 to combat mass incarceration and its disproportionate effects on Black and Latino Americans. 

They lauded his “law and order” goals just days after a 17-year-old white Illinois resident allegedly shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters during a demonstration over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“Trump and his campaign can rage about ‘law and order’ all they want, but in the present circumstances, that strikes me as very unlikely to win him the election,” Greene said, referring to the low percentage of voters who currently cite crime and violence as the most important issue in the U.S. 

All three experts agreed the line between governing and campaigning was blurred during the RNC.

“They have also used the prestige of the White House and the authority of the office to the advantage of their party,” Heberlig said, citing the fact that Trump kicked off Tuesday night’s events issuing a pardon to a convicted bank robber named Jon Ponder who had started a nonprofit to help prisoners.

President Trump accepted his party’s nomination from the White House lawn on Thursday, prompting criticism from those who say the move violates the Hatch Act. 

Greene pulled no punches in an earlier interview with Courthouse News on the topic.

“This is not normal; this is not okay. Yes, the pandemic means that conventions have to scramble to do things a little differently this year, but you do not hold political rallies at the White House,” Greene told Courthouse News over email Thursday night.

House Democrats on Tuesday said they will investigate Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to speak during the convention as a possible breach of anti-corruption policies that forbid political activity in office. 

In addition to the on-air pardon, the president during last week’s convention hosted a naturalization ceremony from the White House.

All of this, Heberlig said, “despite the fact that a presidential nominating convention is a political party event not an official government event.”

As the whirlwind week came to an end, Heberlig said the Republicans achieved their goal with the convention. 

“They consistently touted President Trump's accomplishments, particularly those they thought would appeal to African American and female voters, and simultaneously gave plenty of forceful appeals to their party base, made sure we saw the American flag, denounced China, and drew clear contrasts with Joe Biden,” he said.

As political scientists, Greene said, “while we may be able to look to overall themes and emphases of campaigns as making a difference, I have a very hard time imagining that a few nights of speeches really change very many minds at all.”

He added that the overwhelming body of research shows very modest effects of conventions for campaigns overall.  

“And while, yes, conventions are a highlight of campaigns, I think they end up being of far more interest to political science, professors, journalists, and strong partisans who have already very much made up their mind.” 

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