The Bouncing Donald

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Dr. Malcolm Cross
Dr. Malcolm Cross

A party’s presidential nominee always hopes to get a post-convention “bounce:” An uptick in the public opinion polls following the convention that selected him.  Candidates normally get a bounce if their conventions are united and well organized, if they and others give speeches showing optimism and inclusiveness, and if the conventions are not marred by violence.  So what can The Donald, his supporters, his opponents, and the public expect from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week?

Among the best conventions in recent political history were those which nominated Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama for their respective White House runs.  The conventions were free of any bitterness lingering from the primaries, and the delegates were united in their determination to support their nominees.  Probably the worst convention ever was the 1924 Democratic National Convention, which was hopelessly divided between opponents and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan, and which produced a compromise nominee only after 103 ballots.  Other notably bitter and divided conventions include the Republican convention of 1964, and the Democratic conventions of 1968 and 1972.  The nominees produced by each convention invariably lost their races for the presidency.

One good sign for Trump, if not for conservatives, is the apparent collapse of an organized movement to try to replace him at the convention with a more conservative—and presumably electable—nominee.  Much as I, a Marco Rubio supporter, hate to admit it, but this may be for the best, both for the Republican Party and the conservative movement.  The putative nominee, if one could be produced, would emerge from the convention with a divided party and a diminished chance of winning the White House.  He would be widely seen as illegitimate, much as Hubert Humphrey was seen by Democrats after winning the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination without entering or winning a single primary, and he would be less likely to win the help of the party activists he will need this fall.  The apparent end of the NeverTrump movement at the convention reduces the chances of a crippling floor fight producing a party too divided to win in November.

Moreover, Trump has probably helped promote party unity with his choice of a vice presidential running mate.  Indiana Governor Mike Pence, also a former Congressman, has impeccable conservative credentials.  He should attract more conservative support for the ticket, notwithstanding Trump’s lack of credible conservative credentials.

But what about convention oratory, and the prospect of violence at this week’s Republican convention?

The convention speeches of the presidential nominees and other party orators help set the convention tone.  Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Obama all successfully launched their fall general election campaigns by giving brilliant speeches promoting optimism, inclusiveness, unity, and good feelings.  But Barry Goldwater, in 1964, gave a speech widely perceived as divisive and mean-spirited, which helped doom his campaign to defeat.  The speech given by Patrick Buchanan at the 1992 Republican Convention, excoriating the Clintons for their alleged counter-culture views, is likewise perceived as having hurt President George H. W. Bush’s re-election chances.

Whether Trump can help himself and the Republicans with the sort of nomination acceptance speech as effective as those of Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Obama remains to be seen.  The evidence so far suggests he cannot.  But in this year of surprises, Trump could show an uncharacteristic graciousness, or he could, in some strange way beyond the capacity of a more conventional politician, win more support with a speech that is typical for him yet disastrous for anyone else but him.

And as for violence–Fox News has reported that the leader of the New Black Panthers is predicting violence in Cleveland this week—riots, blockades of highways, police intervention, etc.  The 1968 Democratic national Convention was practically destroyed by rioting by activists protesting the Vietnam War, as well as by a police response widely seen as excessive.  It is certainly the hope of anti-Trump protesters to disrupt the upcoming Republican Convention and thereby reduce Trump’s chances for winning the White House this fall.  Whether there’ll be riots, and whether they’ll ruin Trump’s campaign, remain to be seen.  Conventional wisdom says that more protests will mean more trouble for Trump.  But in this most unconventional of years, Trump may be able to use those to his advantage, arguing they’re examples of the chaos he says the Democrats are inflicting on us and which only he can stop.

So history tells us that a united convention, a message of optimism and inclusiveness, and a lack of violence are most likely to produce the sort of post-convention bounce that will provide a party’s presidential nominee to victory.  But 2016 so far has seen Trump rewrite the history lessons as he defies the well-understood laws of politics to win the Republican presidential nomination.  Even with a Trump-like speech and violence from the left, Donald Trump may be able to bounce his way right into the White House.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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