Now for the Democrats
It was certainly an unusual convention: this edition of the quadrennial gathering of Republican delegates featured fear and rage. There was no shining city on a hill, no morning in America. There was bitter invective against illegal immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter, Barack Obama, and most of all, of course, Hillary Clinton.
For me, the enduring image of the 2016 Republican National Convention will be former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani screaming at the delegates, arms raised and fists clenched, rage blazing in his bulging eyes. American is under attack, he said, from ISIS and from Black Lives Matter.
Giuliani, whose calm, reassuring and inclusive response to the 9/11 attacks in New York earned him the title “America’s Mayor,” gave a speech that was not just remarkably angry in its words. “I was struck by how angry the gestures, the facial gestures, the clenched hands, that went along with the words,” a Republican strategist observed.
Rage doesn’t make for clear thinking, and remarkably absent from the convention was an outline of legislation or other strategies to get us to the four goals set out as themes for the convention’s four sessions: Make America Safe Again, Make America Work Again, Make America First Again, and Make America One Again.
Beyond building a wall to keep illegal immigrants from crossing our southern land border, and banning all Muslim immigrants – or all immigrants from Muslim countries or all Muslims from countries that have had terrorist incidents or all Muslims who believe in Shariah or whatever the current form of the idea might be – there was little discussion of actual policies to further those four goals.
There was the usual Republican talk of tax cuts, school choice, job creation, and so on, but little detail and no explanation how more of these long-standing Republican priorities will work better now than they have in the past.
There were volumes spoken about killings of police, but very little said about killings by police. Donald Trump actually promised to protect the LGBTQ community from foreign ideologies – ISIS, presumably – but nothing about protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination, and nothing about protecting the LGBTQ community’s new-found right to marry.
There were lots of contradictions, my favorite being Giuliani’s venomous threat against radical Islamists, “You know who you are and we’re coming to get you,” standing against Trump’s condemnation of wars and nation-building in the Middle East. It was left unexplained how we’re going to “get” ISIS without fighting a war in the Middle East.
This convention has no precedent to help predict how the American electorate will react to a four-day orgy of fear, anger and hatred. Almost every convention generates a polling “bounce,” at least temporarily lifting a candidate’s poll numbers. It doesn’t always happen: FiveThirtyEight.com actually reduced Mitt Romney’s chances of winning slightly during the 2012 Republican convention.
Now, as at this point four years ago, the Democratic candidate holds a small lead in the popular polling. But now, as then, the distribution of voting patterns strongly favors the Democratic candidate – as of today 538.com’s statistical model gives Clinton a 60 percent chance of winning the election, and projects that she will win all of the states that President Obama won in 2012, for 293 electoral votes. The New York Times’s model gives Clinton a 74 percent chance of winning, projecting all of the 2012 Obama states plus North Carolina (which Obama won in 2008).
In 2012, Democrats followed the listless Republican convention with a “rollicking” display of unity. Given the bitterness of some Bernie Sanders supporters, this convention may not measure up to the 2012 standard. Still, we can expect a show of mutual respect, if not exactly mutual affection, by Clinton and Sanders to contrast with the continuing mutual contempt between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, or between Donald Trump and John Kasich, or between Donald Trump and most of the Republican establishment, or between Donald Trump and anybody who dares to question anything about Donald Trump.
It is hard in American politics for one party to win three presidential elections in a row. It is harder when the party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, is a relatively mediocre campaigner. We know she is mediocre because she twice squandered enormous popular polling leads – in 2008 to Barack Obama, and in 2016 to Bernie Sanders. Compounding that, Clinton has a remarkable ability to turn a snafu like the use of private e-mail servers into a major national scandal, by hoping to muddle through it rather than taking early and decisive action to neutralize it.
Still, my basic optimism leads me to believe that Clinton will win. I do not believe that a voting majority of Americans want President Donald Trump. How the Democratic convention goes and how the presidential debates go after that will determine how big the win will be.