What I Saw in Cleveland: Trump Rocked, But Can He Roll?

The measure of an effective convention is the size and durability of the boost (if any) it produces in the nominee’s support.  Early polling results suggests Donald Trump may have received a small boost in his support from the recently-concluded Republican convention, mostly from previously undecided Republicans, but it’s still too early to judge whether, and how much, it improved his chances in November. This hasn’t stopped pundits on both sides of the political aisle from rendering their own verdict, however premature, of course.  Here’s my take, based on my brief time in Cleveland, capped by a ringside seat (if sitting in the nosebleed seats counts as ringside) to watch Trump’s lengthy, and loud, acceptance speech.

The goal of any party convention is to unify the party behind the presumptive nominee, and to articulate the major themes on which the candidate will run in the general election.  For the most part, I thought Trump accomplished these objectives.  I flew into Ohio expecting to see a very divided set of Republican delegates, and braced for major demonstrations in the streets.  Neither expectation was met.  In fact, despite the media’s tendency to focus attention on dissenting delegates and other controversies (see coverage of Melania’s partly plagiarized speech), this was a relatively tame event. Once Trump’s team, allied with the Republican Party leadership, beat back an early effort to amend the rules to allow the delegates to vote their conscience, the battle for the nomination was essentially over.  The state roll call on Tuesday went relatively smoothly, with New York’s delegates, as announced by Trump’s son Donald, putting Trump over the top to become the party nominee.  Similarly, while Ted Cruz’ failure to endorse Trump received a lot of airtime on the cable shows, it wasn’t clear to me (I wasn’t in the arena for this) that it played all that well with most delegates.  In my view, Cruz’ decision not to endorse was made with an eye toward his bid for the presidency in 2020, on the assumption that he won’t be tainted when Trump is defeated come November. I suspect it will have little impact on the 2016 race.

Perhaps equally surprising, I saw little evidence of sustained protests against Trump on the streets.  To be sure, there were organized demonstrations held nightly at the public square a short distance from the Quickens Loans Arena, but they were largely peaceful and mostly out of site to delegates entering the arena.  Perhaps the most boisterous opposition I saw was by religious groups that evidently viewed Trump’s candidacy as a harbinger of a coming apocalypse.

There was an incident in which a protester tried to burn an American flag near the convention arena entrance, but according to the waitress I talked to in Flannery’s Irish Pub who saw the event, he wasn’t even able to ignite the flag – but did ignite himself – before police wrestled him down.  Protests that same night led to maybe two dozen arrests. The next day security was significantly beefed up in that area, including the use of mounted police, and I didn’t see any significant protests as I entered the arena that night.

On the whole, this man holding a sign proclaiming that “Trump eats farts” while posing for pictures with one of Cleveland’s finest pretty much sums up the tenor of the protests that I saw in Cleveland.

It may be that the highly visible security presence deterred more violent protests.  Indeed, security was tight all over.  As I headed to the courthouse to pick up my security clearance, a platoon of some 40 or more officers came sprinting by me.

There were uniformed officers and security in riot gear holding weaponry everywhere, and police used bomb-sniffing dogs to check for explosives in packages on the street.

To get into the security perimeter around the arena one had to pass an extensive security check, which was more thorough than anything I’ve gone through to get onto an airplane.  That included turning on smart phones to prove they were real.  For the most part, the process went very quickly, but it made me reconsider how much time I wanted to spend in the arena, since I didn’t look forward to going through security every time I had to reenter.

Security was a bit less stringent at the convention center a couple of blocks away from the arena, where the print media (of which I was, allegedly, one) were penned up to write their copy. Evidently we weren’t considered high priority targets for terrorists. Rather than spending time in my designated space with the international media in the far corner of the print press room, my wife – er, camerawoman – and I staked out a position in a pub just opposite the arena entrance where I could drink some local beer, send the occasional tweet, and watch the talking heads like Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd interact with the little people. It was a taxing assignment, but someone has to speak truth to power.

On the final night of the convention, I decided to watch the proceedings from the highest point in the Quicken Loan arena seats, to the left of the main stage, about level with the balloons clustered on the arena ceiling.  (My media credentials limited me to the upper balcony seating.)  On the way in I saw a gaggle of reporters surrounding someone who I assumed must be very important.  It was Don King, the boxing promoter. He had missed out on snaring a formal speaking slot, but that didn’t stop him from talking.

From my nosebleed seats the speakers seem quite tiny, but I had a fine view of the proceedings via the overhead screen.  The most anticipated speaker of the night, other than Donald, was his daughter Ivanka, and she delivered, both substantively and in presentation. To the extent that her comments on issues like equal pay and child care reflects her father’s views, it is a reminder of how Trump is willing, in some areas, to go against the Republican Party orthodoxy in a bid to reach out to more moderate voters.  Whether he succeeded is another question altogether.

When Ivanka introduced her father, the place erupted in applause and a glow of camera phone flashes as Donald walked on stage, his hair looking less unruly than usual.

Even though I was about as far from Trump as one could be, I’m pretty sure I could have heard his speech even had there been no amplification – he practically shouted it out, which may have been partly a function of his adjusting to using a teleprompter, rather than the more informal speaking style I’ve seen from him at his rallies.

As many commentators have noted, Trump’s speech painted a rather grim picture of the state of affairs in the U.S., beginning with his opening statement that “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life” followed by a lengthy recitation of facts and statistics chronicling just how bad the situation purportedly is. But that’s to be expected from a candidate who is running against the incumbent party – it would be more surprising if he painted a more upbeat picture. As he has throughout the campaign, Trump targeted his message to what he called “the forgotten men and women of our country. And they are forgotten, but they’re not gonna be forgotten long. These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.”  The reference to the forgotten men and women, of course, hearkens back to FDR’s use of that term in his famous radio address during the 1932 presidential campaign when he called for plans that “put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”  At the end of his acceptance speech, Trump repeated his claim that “I am your voice.”

As I watched the speech, one incident in particular stood out as a testament to Trump’s maturation as a candidate.  As security quickly surrounded the lone protestor who tried to disrupt the speech, Trump refrained from issuing his characteristic order to “Throw him out” which I had seen so often on the campaign trail and instead, after the protestor was gone, took the time – to great applause – to praise law enforcement for their hard work without ever directly referencing the disruption.

So, what impact will the convention, and Trump’s speech, have on the presidential race?  My sense is that, despite the media focus on a “divided party,” Trump accomplished his first objective, which was to unify the Republican Party behind his candidacy. (Contrary to the impression the media conveyed, when I heard delegates chanting “Lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton, it sounded less like an angry mob and much more like a rollicking party. Delegates were having fun with the chant – or so it seemed to me inside the arena.) And I think his message will resonate with that portion of the electorate that has experienced years of stagnant wages, and who are worried about growing economic inequality and security issues. But although he modified his stance on immigration to target countries rather than Muslims, and made a direct appeal on Thursday night to the groups, including African-Americans, Latinos and members of the LGBT community that historically vote Democrat, it is not clear to me how effective he was in expanding his electoral coalition beyond his current base of low-to-middle-income mostly white male voters.  And I am skeptical that he will be very successful in peeling off very many Sanders supporters to join his cause, despite his direct effort to reach out to them in his speech. But won’t stop him from trying, as evidenced by today’s twitterfest from Trump decrying the DNC email scandal.

The other unknown, of course, is how much of a boost Hillary Clinton will get when the spotlight turns to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week.  Ironically, despite all the media buildup anticipating a very divisive Republican convention, it is the Democrats who seem more divided at the moment, at least if the Sandersistas follow through on their pledge to bring 100,000 protestors to the City of Brotherly Love. My guess, however, is that Democrats will leave Philadelphia next Thursday more unified than they appear to be now, just as Republicans did.

Let me conclude by repeating what I told the camera crew from the Cleveland visitors bureau when they interviewed me about what I thought about their fair city:  everywhere we went people were incredibly nice and helpful, whether it was the man on the rapid transit train explaining how to get to downtown Cleveland, the judicial clerk who sent me to the correct courthouse to get my security pass, or the rapid transit official who let me jump the turnstile when I lost my farecard.   I know Cleveland gets a bad rap – burning rivers, Lebron James, Lebron James again, etc. (City Motto: We’re not Detroit!)  But from what I saw in the brief time I spent there, Cleveland Rocks.

 

 

 

 

Does Trump Have His Eye On Newt?

We have entered a political lull between the period in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became their party’s presumptive nominees and the party conventions signifying the kickoff to the general election campaign. In a bid to drum up items of interest during this slow news period, the media will spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about who the two candidates will choose as their vice presidential running mates (along with a healthy dose of Clinton’s email woes) – an exercise that both candidates will be only to happy to encourage.  These stories will contain the obligatory reference to John Nance Garner’s quip that the Vice Presidency is not “worth a bucket of warm piss”, and then will play the speculation game by pointing out the ways in which various potential candidates do or do not help the president win the general election.  We’ll see references to which vice presidential candidate best “balances” the ticket – geographically, or with certain voting blocs (women, religious groups, etc.), or to compensate for a candidate’s perceived lack of expertise in certain areas.

All this begs the question: is there any evidence that the vice president pick even matters, in terms of influencing the general election?  Generally speaking, the short answer is no – at least not in terms of the overall presidential vote.  There is some evidence that a vice presidential candidate chosen from a swing state could be electorally consequential by boosting a presidential candidate’s support there. But the effect, if it exists, is likely quite modest. However, as I suggested to Deutsche Welle (DW) reporter Michael Knigge,  as with many aspects of this election, prior research may be – I stress may be – less relevant this time around.  This is particularly the case when it comes to Donald Trump’s vice presidential choice.  The reason is that Trump, perhaps more than almost any major party nominee in modern history, lacks any governing experience at any political level.  Beginning at least with the Carter-Mondale relationship presidents have increasingly integrated their vice president into their policy advising process.  As a consequence, the vice presidential choice has been increasingly likely to turn on how well the presidential candidate believes his vice presidential nominee will help him or her govern, as opposed to boosting his electoral chances. Dick Cheney wasn’t selected by Bush because he could deliver Wyoming and its three Electoral College votes – he was chosen because he possessed the foreign policy experience George W. Bush lacked, as Bush makes clear in his memoirs.  Similarly, Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was not made in order to bring Delaware into the Democratic column in 2008.  Instead, Obama was hoping to capitalize on Biden’s years of experience in the Senate.  And even candidates who are chosen in part for electoral reasons, as Al Gore was in 1992,  often provide needed governing expertise as well.  In his memoirs, Bill Clinton notes that he had weekly lunches with Gore throughout his presidency:  “Al Gore helped me a lot in the early days….giving me a continuing crash course in how Washington works.”

Trump, in his public comments, seems to recognize that he needs to select someone with governing experience, preferably working in Congress. It seems, however, that as vice presidents have become an important part of the presidential staff, personal compatibility with the presidential candidate has become an increasingly important factor influencing the selection as well.  In listing the qualities that ultimately led him to offer the position to Cheney, Bush said, “I wanted someone with whom I was comfortable, someone willing to serve as part of a team, someone with the Washington experience that I lacked… .”

At first glance, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is reportedly the front-runner to become Trump’s running mate, seems to provide the type of congressional experience that Trump will sorely need if he’s to get his legislative agenda through Congress.  Even Gingrich’s harshest critics acknowledge that he is smart, and a savvy player of the Washington game. But Gingrich has also acquired a reputation for erratic behavior and a penchant for floating big think, but perhaps impractical ideas – see his proposal during the 2012 campaign for establishing a moon base by 2020.   More importantly, perhaps, Gingrich seems to suffer from some of the same weaknesses Trump exhibits – a lack of self-discipline and a penchant for rhetorical excess that often attracts media attention for the wrong reasons.   And his personal life – particular his marriages – isn’t likely to sit well with conservative voters who are already suspicious of Trump’s right-wing credentials and moral rectitude.

Electorally, it is not clear that Gingrich brings much to the ticket. It is true that Gingrich won his home state of Georgia easily four years earlier during the race for the Republican nomination, which might matter if Democrats try to turn that state blue – a long-shot proposition at this point.  However, there are lots of more important swing states out there (see: Ohio) and politicians (see: John Kasich) who would make a better choice for electoral reasons alone.  The problem, however, is that many of the Republicans who bring the most electorally, including Kasich, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, have expressed no interest in being Trump’s running mate.  Gingrich, on the other hand, seems perfectly willing to climb aboard the Trump presidential train.

One important quality that Gingrich does possess, at least according to press reports, is that Trump likes and trusts him, something that is evident in Trump’s comments about Newt during their joint appearance at a rally yesterday in Cincinnati.

 

Who knows?  A Trump-Gingrich presidential ticket might create the type of creative synergy not seen since….well, since ever.   Or, the two might create a combustible mix of inflated egos and excessive rhetoric that will end up self-destructing on the campaign trail. Either way, it would be one hell of a ride.

The Truth About the Benghazi Report

It was the best of Reports.  It was the worst of Reports.  Yesterday the House Benghazi Committee finally revealed its long-awaited 800-page report detailing its findings regarding the 2012 attacks in Libya.  The New York Times headlined its story this way: “House Benghazi Report Finds No New Evidence of Wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.”   The online magazine The Hill saw it differently: “Benghazi panel faults Clinton.”  Predictably, the pundits lined up in their respective partisan camps.  Thus the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank concluded, “There’s still no smoking gun from Benghazi — just a lot more smoke.” At the New York Post, however, John Podhoretz cites the Report as further evidence of administration deception.

Both perspectives have some merit, I suppose.  But, in my view, neither is particularly relevant.   The real story here is what Benghazi reveals about decisionmaking at the highest levels of government, and how little influence a President and his immediate advisers have over critical events as they unfold, in no small part because they are often operating under a great deal of uncertainty.  (Full disclosure – I’ve only read portions of the 800-page report.)   A few examples from the Report help drive home the point.  First, in an emergency two-hour meeting convened by the President as the attack unfolded, much of the discussion centered over the role played by an anti-Muslim video on YouTube in inciting the attack. But the Report concludes the video probably played no role in the Benghazi attack, something Clinton acknowledged in a conversation with the Egyptian government a day after the attack.  The Report put it this way:

utube

Second, despite orders from Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to mobilize a military response, military assets in the region never got their act in gear. Referencing an email sent by deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough the Report notes:

Mcdounogh

The one military response that did occur took place on the initiative of a local CIA operative.

Third, Susan Rice, the administration’s United Nations ambassador, made comments on several Sunday talk shows the day after the attack that apparently had not been fully vetted by the intelligence or diplomatic services.  Her erroneous claim that the attacks were spontaneous would cause huge problems for the administration in the months to come when they were shown to be incorrect.

Finally, the Left Hand often did not know what the Right Hand of government was doing.  So, when it came to evacuating personnel, the Defense Department assumed State was overseeing the operation, but State was waiting to locate Ambassador Stevens first.  Many officials, apparently, didn’t realize the CIA had its own facility in Benghazi. As the Report noted:

defense

To me, these are less signs of administration deception than they are evidence of understandable confusion, and the need to take action under conditions of incomplete information.   Was the administration concerned about the potential political fallout from the Benghazi attack?  Of course they were – and justifiably so!  By political I mean not just the presidential election that was currently underway – although that was likely a concern – but also the ramifications for the political dynamics in Libya and the Arab world more generally. It is the President’s job, along with his political advisers, to keep tabs on the political impact of events. To avoid thinking politically in the broad sense of the word would be a dereliction of duty.

My point here is not to exonerate Clinton, or the Obama administration more generally, for responsibility for what happened in Benghazi.  But in my view the criticism is more properly directed at the earlier decision to intervene in Libya without fully anticipating how to deal with the subsequent power vacuum resulting from the overthrow of the Gadhafi government. Benghazi was a consequence of that choice.

To be clear, I haven’t finished wading through the full report. (I suspect portions of it will be required reading in my bureaucracy class.) But in my view its importance lies not in its potential impact on Clinton’s candidacy, even though that is how the media is covering its release.  Instead, it is in revealing the inner workings of a presidential administration trying to respond to a critical event as it unfolds. This is what makes this document an interesting read, and why it is significant – even though it is unlikely to have any significant influence on the presidential campaign.

Often my students and readers get mildly irritated with me (or worse) when I persist in stating that this highly-publicized event (Orlando shooting, Brexit, fill-in-the-blank) is unlikely to have much impact on the presidential race, unless it occurs just before the actual vote.  “How can this be?” you ask.  “It’s all anyone is talking about!”  The answer is that these events don’t usually change the underlying factors that drive people’s vote.  Yes, they may provide a short-term impact on attitudes related to the event – say, a boost in support for a ban on assault weapons.  But they don’t usually persuade a Republican-leaner to vote Democrat, or vice versa.  This is partly because partisan attachment serves as a frame of reference that helps an individual make sense of the event in a way that tends to confirm one’s world view.  We saw this in the immediate reaction to the Orlando shooting,  where those with strong partisan predispositions immediately sought to explain the event in a way that was consistent with their political beliefs. Those partisan attachments condition how we respond to news reports by influencing which reports we believe.

I expect the same reaction to the Benghazi Report.  Is Milbank right?  Or Podhoretz?  It depends on your partisan leanings! Trump supporters are sure to cite the Report as more evidence that Clinton’s actions led indirectly (or directly!) to the death of four Americans. Her supporters will reference that portion clearing Clinton of immediate culpability and say that after multiple investigations into the incident “enough is enough”.   And after 48 hours or so the media will move on to the next breaking story.

The Benghazi Report. It’s a bombshell. Or not.

Why Trump Is Losing…er….Winning This Race

Donald Trump is losing the presidential race.  I know, because the pundits are telling me so.  According to them, Donald Trump has endured a very bad week – no, a very bad month! – one that has severely damaged his presidential candidacy. Beginning with his questionable attack on the ethnic heritage of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, through his tone-deaf response to the Orlando night-club tragedy, to the recent FEC report indicating Trump had raised virtually no money in the last fiscal quarter, and ending with the shakeup of his campaign staff, Trump managed to destroy whatever momentum he might have gained by locking up the Republican nomination. As a result, the pundits say, he has lost ground to Clinton in the presidential race, as measured in recent surveys showing Clinton expanding her lead.  Some pundits are already proclaiming Trump be “an incredibly weak presumptive nominee, perhaps among the weakest ever” with some predicting he won’t break 40% in the popular vote. Not surprisingly, there are indications that Republicans are experiencing deep buyer’s remorse, and efforts to free delegates to vote their conscience at the Republican convention are picking up steam. No wonder Trump’s unfavorable rating has reached a record high of 70%!

Welcome to the media’s Silly Season.  With both major parties’ nominations essentially clinched (pay no attention to those contested convention rumors) we are officially entering a protracted period in which pundits handicap the presidential contest in terms of each candidate’s ability to “win” a media cycle, which is typically the period associated with a dominant news story. To win, the media must judge a candidate to have gotten the better of their rival in terms of reacting to that news story, or creating a new one.  They can do so by any number of means – a clever advertisement, a carefully prepared speech, an effective photo op or simply by avoiding the all-important “gaffe”.  Often polls are used to “prove” the accuracy of the media’s collective judgment regarding who won.  Under this horserace scenario, after clinching their respective nominations candidates start off essentially even, and whoever is better at winning these media cycles will eventually take home the ultimate prize come November: the presidency. And right now, thanks to Trump’s gaffes, Clinton is pulling ahead.

There’s only one problem with the framework: it’s almost certainly wrong.  Presidential elections are not horseraces, in which the winning candidate’s trip to the finish line can only be charted on a step-by-step basis, with no clear way at the start to predict which one will get there first. In fact, decades of political science research shows that there is an underlying structural equilibrium to a presidential contest based on fundamental factors such as the state of the economy, whether the nation is at war, and how long the incumbent party has occupied the White House, and that much of what the media cites as critical in their daily coverage has almost no lasting impact on this dynamic.

This is not to say that campaigns don’t matter.  They do.  But not in the way that this on-going media narrative suggests.  Instead, campaigns serve as a means by which each candidate makes those fundamental factors salient to voters, preferably in ways that advantage their candidacy at the expense of their opponent’s.   Crucially, however, these campaigns cannot create their own reality via clever tactics – they must deal with the hand fate has dealt them.  Assuming both candidates play their hands effectively in a strategic sense by choosing the proper frame, the outcome is not as open-ended as the pundits’ horserace perspective would have us believe.

Now it is possible that this year will be different – that Trump’s candidacy will be so gaffe-prone and disorganized that it will override the fundamentals in a way that hands Clinton the victory.  Or perhaps he will choose the wrong campaign frame given the underlying fundamentals. This is what some analysts believe happened in 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore adopted a populist strategy rather than focusing on the rather favorable economic conditions he inherited from his predecessor.  It may be, then, that the pundits are right – that Trump’s recent “gaffes” are evidence that he’s not up to snuff when it comes to running a national campaign.  On the other hand, the same criticisms were leveled at him through the nominating race, and yet he somehow managed to vanquish 16 opponents.

No matter.  The pundits have spoken. Trump’s poor choice of campaign tactics has left him dangerously behind in the race for the Presidency, and there’s the possibility he may never catch up……Wait!  Great Britain, in a stunning demonstration of populist strength, has voted to leave the European Union!  Given the obvious parallels between the Brexit movement and Trump’s candidacy, this is good news for Trump, and clear evidence that we’ve been underestimating his chances of winning!  The race is on again!

(Note: as my academic leave comes to an end and I finish up a book project, I’ll be posting shorter pieces that, alas, may be a little lighter on the political science research side than I’d like.  Please bear with me, but I do have a day job to keep.)