With each passing day, it’s becoming more obvious that the old-school, packed-hall national political convention the president is forcing his party to undertake — despite the inconvenience, cost, and risk — may have to be canceled or scaled back, lest it become a supersize version of the Trump fiasco in Tulsa.
First of all, thanks to Trump’s decision to yank key parts of the convention from its original site in Charlotte, financing the event has become a struggle, as the New York Times reports:
The abrupt uprooting of the Republican National Convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville has created a tangled financial predicament for party officials as they effectively try to pay for two big events instead of one. Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent in a city that will now host little more than a G.O.P. business meeting, and donors are wary of opening their wallets again to bankroll a Jacksonville gathering thrown into uncertainty by a surge in coronavirus cases.
The financial situation has been exacerbated by the second big problem: Trump has moved his convention from a coronavirus frying pan to a coronavirus wildfire:
In Jacksonville, fund-raisers are describing the process as the most difficult they have ever confronted: Florida has been setting daily records for new virus cases, freezing money as donors wait and worry about the safety risks of the pandemic.
“I don’t want to encourage people getting sick,” said Stanley S. Hubbard, a Minnesota billionaire who has donated more than $2 million to help Republicans, including President Trump, since the beginning of the 2016 election … “Unless this thing goes away, I think it’s a bad choice,” he said.
The third big problem is that people associated with Trump are now beginning to hint that the convention itself could go away, or at least be held under conditions similar to the virtual convention Democrats moved toward early in the pandemic. On Sunday, Trump-appointed FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said that it was “too early to tell” if Florida will be a safe place to host the RNC.
There’s even a canary in the coal mine that might tell us pretty soon if Trump’s Jacksonville dreams will be dashed: the Texas Republican Convention that is supposed to happen in Houston this month. Per the Texas Tribune, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has officially asked Texas Republicans to call off the convention and warned that if the party decides to push ahead, city health inspectors will be allowed to shut the event down if local guidelines aren’t followed.
The Texas GOP’s executive committee recently voted 40–20 to go ahead with their plans for a live convention. Texas Democrats more prudently held a virtual event last month.
It’s also possible, of course, that Trump is so enamored of the kind of convention he wants that he will push on with it despite the risk of delegates not showing up or, worse yet, attending a super-spreader event that makes a lot of people sick.
What makes this whole convoluted mess particularly dubious is that there are growing signs it won’t do Trump much good even if it comes off precisely as planned. As Geoffrey Skelley explains at FiveThirtyEight, the idea of a convention “bounce” for either party’s presidential candidate may be outdated:
[C]onvention bounces have been getting smaller, which is likely a byproduct of how polarized our politics have become. There are just fewer swing voters, so it’s harder for a candidate to attract support outside of his or her core base of supporters.
Beyond that, of course, the very idea of conventions as stage-managed infomercials that dominate the airwaves with positive messaging could be dead wrong this particular year. Unless the coronavirus really does miraculously vanish between now and late August (Trump’s big acceptance speech is scheduled for August 27), the risks the GOP is taking will get a lot of attention even if the worst doesn’t happen. And the pandemic and its economic impact will probably rob both conventions of the kind of obsessive media attention they typically get.
Republicans should have stuck with Charlotte and moved to a largely virtual convention that would have been far safer and likely more effective from the party’s point of view. As it is, the whole event may simply demonstrate how the president’s narcissism is the GOP’s real — if inadvertent — reelection message.