CLEVELAND — One of the craziest and most tumultuous presidential primary seasons in recent memory comes to a head Monday as Donald Trump arrives in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention.
Conventions are meant to be festive but tightly disciplined events, a rare moment when the Republican party can control the program, reintroduce their candidate and launch him into the fall campaign with a bump in the polls. The political universe will be watching whether Trump — rarely known for his discipline — can stick to his script. Will he unite a party unraveled by his candidacy, or will he blow it apart?
This week’s gathering in Cleveland as the GOP’s moment of catharsis—with a candidate who is very much on probation.
“It’s a healing time,” said Ben Barringer, an Iowa delegate who initially supported Ted Cruz and is still deciding whether he can get behind Trump. “Everyone’s got their own agenda and you duke it out… I think a little bit of strife here — on the committees, maybe on the floor — will be healthy.”
In dozens of interviews with GOP delegates here over the last week, there is no question that Trump’s team has made progress in the past few months, winning over delegates who are poised to nominate the ultimate outsider as the GOP’s standard-bearer. Trump also has a huge opportunity: he is competitive with Hillary Clinton in most of the battleground states. He showed restraint by following the lead of his advisers and choosing Mike Pence, the running mate viewed as his best option to unite the party.
And his increasingly organized team successfully quashed a convention delegate revolt that could have turned into an embarrassing fiasco.
“Look it was a contentious primary, we had 17 people running—lots of good people,” said Massachusetts RNC Committeeman Ron Kaufman, a former adviser to Mitt Romney, who supported Jeb Bush this cycle. But on the upside, he said, “We had the biggest turnout in history; more people watched our debate than their debate. And like any of these intramural contests, there are bruises and cuts that have to be that have to be dried. Every day gets better, we get more unified.”
“Are there problems? Sure,” Kaufman added. “But not as many problems as the Democrats have quite frankly.”
Trump holdouts are hoping the candidate will demonstrate a more genuine effort to unite the party and display a coherent message that extends beyond the penchant toward self-promotion that he displayed in his unusual rollout of Pence as his running-mate.
“I’d like to see him being more tempered, I think most people would say that — even his most ardent supporters,” Barringer said. “But I don’t want him to lose who he is either, because you don’t want to just throw that away.”
The Republican Party remains deeply fractured. Many Republicans who can’t stand Trump simply stayed home from the convention.
The less-than-dazzling roster of speakers slated for this week illustrates the deep chasm within the party, and how far Trump has taken the GOP from its goal of becoming a more inclusive party. That they see Clinton as beatable only adds to the regret Trump critics have.
Many of the GOP’s brightest stars, particularly those who are vulnerable in their home states — such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Utah Rep. Mia Love — won’t be there in person, though Rubio is giving a video message to air Wednesday. The last three Republican nominees: Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush, aren’t showing up.
The only former Republican nominee to appear will be former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who will be honored Monday night and will share Trump’s VIP box. Dole has been sharply critical of Republicans who have refused to endorse the presumptive GOP nominee.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was the last holdout in the GOP primary, won’t be addressing the Republican convention that’s held in his own backyard.
And there is a sizable group of delegates here who are still straining to get behind Trump. A number of them explained, with an air of weariness, that they are here to be “good soldiers” for the party.
“There are a lot of people here who are just checking a box,” said one delegate who would not be quoted speaking critically of Trump.
“A lot of people aren’t here because it’s counterproductive,” said Republican strategist and CNN political contributor Ana Navarro. “A lot of the folks that are on the ballot realize that its hurtful to be here and that if they get caught in Cleveland, they are going to have to end up explaining the things that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth.”
Pointing to the difficulties in critically important swing states like Florida, Navarro noted that it was the first time she could remember when there was no elected federal official from south Florida attending the convention.
“Not one federally elected Hispanic from Florida: It speaks volumes about Trump’s problems with Hispanics,” she said. “When you look at the roster of speakers, it’s sorely lacking any diversity. There’s a reason why all the purple state candidates aren’t here. They realize the man is toxic.”
Unifying factor: Clinton
But the great unifying factor here in Cleveland is the strong desire to defeat Hillary Clinton.
At a time of great unrest around the world — from the terrorist attack in Nice, to the recent ambush on Dallas police officers, to Sunday’s shooting of three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — Trump has been making the argument that he would be the stronger leader in the White House. His emphasis, he said in a “60 Minutes” interview, will be on “law and order.”
“We are TRYING to fight ISIS, and now our own people are killing our police. Our country is divided and out of control. The world is watching,” Trump tweeted Sunday.
That argument could hold sway with anxious swing voters, particularly on the first night of the convention when the theme will be “Make America Safe Again.”
While Trump is trailing Clinton significantly in some swing states that represent the new, more diverse America, like Colorado, the two candidates have been within the margin of error in critical states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. That fact alone has been a draw to Trump — the sense that he could actually win this thing.
Though the mood here is far more subdued than it was in 2000 and 2004 when delegates were exhilarated about nominating George W. Bush, the Pence pick clearly reassured party members — leaving some detractors willing to give Trump a chance to reset and win their confidence.
In the effort to improve its appeal to delegates here, Trump’s team made some politically savvy moves last week. It largely stayed out of the platform fights over LGBT issues, and took a light touch on other aspects of the platform like trade that might have created conflict between the candidate and the party rank-and-file.
“I’ve been impressed,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who had endorsed Cruz, said of the Trump campaign, “As I’ve seen in the past from some candidates, they’ve not strong-armed the delegates; the RNC has been playing very fair in acting as referees for the process.”
“I think we will come out of (this) next week with a very unified party, supportive of the nominee, with the goal of winning the White House in the fall,” Perkins said.
Over the past week, other delegates here described their slow, and sometimes grudging acceptance of Trump’s candidacy. Jesse Law, a delegate who is chief of staff of the Nevada Republican Party, notes that he never expected to get behind Trump.
“I thought maybe I would just be entertained; then he put the media on its heels, and (I) knew he was a leader,” said Law, who was an early supporter of Ron Paul in 2008.
“He’s not grounded in constitutional principles,” Law said of Trump, noting that as “a Ron Paul guy” he was surprised by how much he ultimately came to like Trump. “But it was his ability to be authentically whatever — not asking for permission to believe in something, his populist appeal.”
‘He’s willing to be a leader’
“For a long time I wasn’t talking about it,” Law added, particularly given the reactions of horror among his Democratic friends and colleagues. “But now I am, and I’m just like ‘You know what? Don’t leave the country. He’s just rude and that’s not a big deal.’ He’s willing to be a leader… and this country is starved for leadership.”
One thing that has helped Trump is the fact that his team, under the direction of Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, has been seemingly everywhere over the past week — working RNC members and delegates at every committee meeting, seeking advice on strategy in target states, and offering reassurance that they are rapidly ramping up their political operation.
The night before the expected showdown in the Rules Committee last week, for example, the Trump campaign threw open the doors of their secretive, upstairs lair at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cleveland.
Technically the gathering was supposed to be a strategy meeting for Trump and RNC whips who would ultimately squelch the brewing rebellion by members who wanted to “free the delegates” if their conscience tells them not to vote to nominate Trump.
But beyond the whips, a huge crowd of delegates streamed down the sidewalk from the convention center to the Westin — some out of sheer curiosity.
They wanted to see face-to-face the others who were supporting their wildly unpredictable, sometimes embarrassing and not all together reliable nominee — and the team standing behind him. Some breathed a sigh of relief once they saw all the faces in that room.
They were not alone.
The Trump team — many of whom were virtual strangers to the delegates standing before them — was disciplined, organized, ready to take on the anti-Trump forces with of a posse of lawyers, a sophisticated texting system for the floor, and the full force of the Republican National Committee behind them.
But there is that much broader universe of Republican voters who are not in Cleveland. Across the country, many Republicans are still unhappy with their choice, according to a recent Pew Research Poll.
Pew found that voter dissatisfaction with both Trump and Clinton was at its lowest point in two decades. In June, only 40% of Republicans said they were satisfied with their choices (compared with 43% of Democrats who were happy with Clinton). At the same time, most Republicans believe the party will be united coming out of the convention, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Monday.
Veteran Republican Strategist Mike DuHaime said party unity won’t be a reality until voters see a more full-throated embrace of Trump from “governors and senators who are still holding out, or doing the bare minimum.”
“That’s problematic,” DuHaime said. “But frankly a lot of this falls on Trump himself.”
“He needs to stop picking fights with people, leaving hurt feelings — taking shots at Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney,” for example. “It doesn’t help and it doesn’t win you any votes. It certainly lessens enthusiasm.”
Trump “has already proven he’s the anti-establishment candidate, he doesn’t need prove it every day by going after people who many of his own supporters like. So a lot of this falls on him ,” he said, “ultimately party unity rests on the winner.”