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Not So Hot in Cleveland

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley

Assessing RNC 2016 at the halfway point

(CLEVELAND) — With two nights down at the Republican National Convention and two nights to go, here are five quick observations on Trump TV:

An uneven presentation

Some conventions resemble a work of art or a play with a polished script. Others are more like half-finished modern art or a first draft of a production that can’t even make off-off-Broadway. The 2016 Republican National Convention strikes us as a strange hybrid. The technical details have been nicely presented, from the advanced lighting to the stage presentation where Donald Trump made a magnificent silhouetted entrance surrounded by fog to introduce his wife on Monday night.

It’s the substance of that moment that could have used more work — and permissions. As everyone now knows, Melania Trump’s speech contained phrases and passages taken from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention oration for her husband. A plagiarism website consulted by Washingtonian magazine found that the odds all these words were concocted without reference to Obama’s talk were at least a trillion to one. There also were some signs that a few good lines from Donald Trump, Jr’s well-received Tuesday speech were taken from a previously-published article, but then the author of the piece said that he wrote the speech for Don Jr. Plus, Donald Trump triumphantly marched onstage to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” on Monday — which royally infuriated the band because they oppose Trump and had never given permission for the song to be used. You get the picture: Much of this program seems thrown together and badly considered.

Melania’s speech was not the end of Monday night’s program, as it should have been since it was an emotional highlight. Other prominent speakers such as Sen. Joni Ernst droned on afterwards to a nearly empty hall. Tuesday night also ended with a sparse crowd. This is not the impression of enthusiasm that a party wants to communicate.

Also, if anyone had carefully examined the speeches to eliminate duplication and ensure just the right tone, we couldn’t tell it. On Monday, there was a deluge of anger in the featured remarks from the Benghazi mother getting way too personal in accusing Hillary Clinton, essentially, of murdering her son, to former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani screaming like a madman about Muslim extremists — and refusing to see the irony. Doesn’t anyone in politics remember media maestro Marshall McLuhan, who advised that television was a cool medium?

Running back 1968 in a much different America

There has been a fair amount of commentary suggesting that Trump is channeling Richard Nixon, projecting a law and order message in a country riven by turmoil. The Nixon comparisons are nothing new — the Trump campaign has been using signs with the Nixonian motto “the Silent Majority stands with Trump” for much of the campaign. But Trump is pushing this message in a nation that is very different than Nixon’s America of 1968. Estimating based on Gallup’s 1968 adjusted demographic voter data, the electorate was about 90% white in that election. This election, the electorate is going to be just around 70% white in all likelihood. The country has changed a great deal in the past half-century. Additionally, despite some real concerns going into the convention, through two days there has not been chaos in Cleveland. To be clear — that does not necessarily mean that there won’t be. Protests and dissent likely will only grow as the convention goes on. But police forces are out in immense force and, at least so far, this is not a redux of the disastrously violent and divisive 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Not even close. And we greatly hope it stays that way.

A family affair

Even the Kennedys didn’t have as many family members appear at the 1960 convention as Trumps have at this one. Naturally, family members have often been used as props, in a sense, occasionally seen in cameo roles in film or on the podium: LBJ’s daughters, Nixon’s daughters and sons-in-laws, the Ford and Carter children in 1976, the Bushes, and so on. And of course there will be (at least) three prominently featured Clintons in Philadelphia next week. But to have a convention where the family members play a significant role each night of the convention is unprecedented. It’s obviously an attempt to humanize Trump and file down his rough edges — although it will take a lot more than a stable of attractive and well-spoken family members to do that. Trump made a virtue of necessity. So many senior politicians are desperate to avoid even the slightest taint from Trump. They’ll always be somewhere else when he’s in their state or district. Instead of the usual clamor for speaking slots, we understand Trump and the Republican National Committee had to reach out to some of the underwhelming cast of characters we’ve seen.

In Trump’s mind, and maybe for some of the children and their spouses, this is a power game. They’ve been playing it in business throughout the Trump Empire for some time. Why not apply this to politics, too?

Buckeye dyspepsia

It is amazing that Gov. John Kasich, the popular Republican governor of Ohio who has spent a considerable amount of time cultivating and boosting the very Democratic city of Cleveland, is likely not even going to appear on the stage at his own party’s convention here. Obviously, Kasich has no use for Trump, and the feeling is mutual. Trump strategist Paul Manafort got in something of a war of words with Kasich earlier in the week, and the Trump forces have tweaked the home state delegation in other ways, as anti-Trump Republican state Auditor Dave Yost recounted in fairly blunt detail for Cleveland.com.

Historically, Republicans can’t win the presidency without Ohio, and Trump doesn’t have a practical path without it either. Looming in the background is all sorts of buzz amongst the people who know the state best that Kasich still hopes to run again in 2020 after he is termed out of office in 2018.

In the meantime, though, state Republicans are laser-focused on saving Sen. Rob Portman in his battle against former Gov. Ted Strickland. The best way to do that is probably driving up Republican turnout, and turnout in a presidential year is, in our view, driven by the top of the ticket. So the Trump campaign and the Kasich-dominated Ohio Republican Party may ultimately need to bury the hatchet for the good of both forces this fall.

Larry and Antonio

The Crystal Ball was thought by many to have provided a featured presenter, Antonio Sabàto, Jr. It’s true that Larry and Antonio are probably distant Italian-American cousins, as their chiseled features, matinee idol looks, six-pack abs, and stints on General Hospital would suggest. Alas, only Antonio qualifies; Larry has been dining out on his cousin’s reputation for decades now, and it’s kind of sad. Also, Larry insists that Antonio mispronounces the family name, since it is correctly (according to Larry) enunciated with an emphasis on the first syllable rather than with the grave accent over the second “a.” A further significant difference between these twins separated at birth became apparent when Antonio declared he was “sure” President Obama was actually a Muslim. Well, no, Antonio, Obama actually is a Christian, though it shouldn’t make any difference if he were Muslim. You’re too privileged and prominent to be propagating falsehoods like that. There’s no excuse. Come by the UVA Center for Politics anytime and we’ll give you the facts. And you and Larry can argue about how to say the last name of la famiglia.

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