intelligencer chats

Will the Virtual Conventions Have a Lasting Effect on the Presidential Race?

Photo: Getty Images

We’ve made it through another gauntlet of the pandemic election year, having survived back-to-back weeks of virtual conventions. But will they matter next week? I spoke with national political reporter Gabriel Debenedetti about the final night of the Republican National Convention, Trump’s keynote on the White House lawn, and the unlikely prospect that the online events will make a deep impact in such a tumultuous year.

Matt: If Joe Biden’s speech last week exceeded most expectations, Trump’s announcement on Thursday that he would “profoundly accept” the GOP nomination was a bit of a slog, closer to one of his teleprompter State of the Union addresses than the energy at his rallies. (That changed a bit as the president began to ad-lib more heavily on the backend of his speech.) What did you think of Trump’s bloated case for his reelection?

Gabriel: Well, I wasn’t surprised by it, that’s for sure. He just said everything he’s been saying — a ton of it untrue — and it dragged on for about 17 hours, by my estimation.

I think people in the pundit-sphere are underestimating how much ground Trump has to make up to be in striking distance of Biden, and how close we are to the beginning of voting. This was a genuinely boring speech, by Trump’s standards, and I’m struggling to see how it could win over new voters, though I do see how his listing of supposed accomplishments — again, many of them stretched or made up — could convince some wavering GOP-ers not to leave his side.

And when so much of Trump’s pitch is based around the idea that America is descending into tyranny and only he can stop that, well, it’s a tough case to make when, um, you’re the president already.

Matt: I thought Pence did it well last night when he finished with, “Let’s make America great again. Again.”

Gabriel: High up there in the annals of unintentionally hilarious convention moments.

Matt: Whether or not the message that “only Trump can bring law and order” was logically consistent, could it work to expand his sway in the suburbs? It seems that so much of this convention has been catered to do just that.

Gabriel: Well, we’ll see. I hesitate to make predictions, but embedded in all the commentary about this is an assumption that the conventions — both of them — could really change people’s minds. I haven’t seen much evidence of that this year. The suburbs have been trending very hard away from Trump, even before he started his even-more-racist-than-usual pitch toward them. Republicans are clearly hoping images of protests and unrest like in Kenosha after the police shooting of Jacob Blake will help their cause, but, again, I haven’t seen the evidence of that yet. And Trump’s polling on race issues has been completely abysmal.

What’s really striking here is that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s killed nearly 200,000 Americans and the president is essentially declaring victory, and assuming that simply talking about other stuff will be enough. Well, most suburban voters I’ve spoken with are pretty concerned about what school looks like this fall, let alone whether they can see their friends or go to work! “Law and order” ain’t nothing, politically speaking, but it feels delusional to basically pass by this fact.

All that said, you’re definitely right that this is the Trump camp’s most pressing task. But so much of this convention felt like it was actually tailored to juicing turnout from his diehard supporters, in part through the act of appearing to reach out to the (white) ’burbs.

Matt: Looking beyond just tonight, do you think these conventions will have a significant impact on a race in which conventional campaigns are on pause? For perspective, night three RNC viewership on CBS, NBC, and ABC combined was a little less than that of Wednesday’s America’s Got Talent.

Gabriel: This is the kind of thing that’s really hard to gauge until we’re a few weeks or months away from them, but the generally low viewership and relatively low number of undecided voters (compared to 2016, at least) suggests these conventions are hardly the culture-shapers they were then. I think this week will ultimately be more remembered for the violence in Kenosha and the strikes in professional sports.

The other piece of this, which is really important, is that this race has been unbelievably stable for months and months. Why should these conventions change that? What happened onstage this week or last that promises to fundamentally reshape things?

Matt: I agree, it feels like there’s too much offstage action for the RNC and DNC to be the defining moments of such a news-heavy week, let alone a turning point in the 2020 campaign.

Will the Virtual Conventions Have a Real Effect on the Race?