2016 Republican National Convention anything but conventional
CLEVELAND — This is not your father's or even your grandfather's Republican National Convention.
Donald Trump on Monday broke the long-held tradition of the nominee not appearing until the closing night, taking the backlit, fog-swirled stage to Queen's “We are the Champions” — which was played without authorization, the band noted on Twitter.
He delivered an uncharacteristically brief introduction of his wife, Melania, the first in a long roster of Trump family members and friends scheduled to speak.
Non-political people — including actors, soldiers and grieving parents — dominated an opening program designed to reach beyond buttoned-down conservatives.
A black Milwaukee sheriff proclaimed that blue lives matter.
“These conventions have become too scripted and boring for the regular person looking to see what makes a candidate tick,” said Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University. “We all expected the unconventional candidate to do something a little more savvy, as well as reach out to voters in a way that perhaps the media does not understand.”
That sense of savvy was marred a bit Monday.
Melania Trump's speech initially was warmly received, but it quickly became apparent that several parts of her address were lifted almost verbatim from first lady Michele Obama's speech at the 2008 Democratic convention. That set off a social media fury, fueled further by the Trump camp's denials and refusal to acknowledge the gaffe.
Meanwhile, Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, made so many derogatory statements about Ohio Gov. John Kasich failing to endorse Trump that The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported he was alienating the powerful Ohio delegation.
Those blemishes will fade, Sracic said.
“Middle America is much more likely to remember a mom who lost her son (in Benghazi) than Melania stealing a few boilerplate phrases from Michelle Obama,” Sracic said. However, Trump's decision to call into Fox News for a live interview with Bill O'Reilly while Patricia Smith spoke about her son had some strategists questioning whether he was taking away from the impact of her message.
Either way, a new convention strategy is on full display, with glitz and drama out-shouting the traditional political pageantry.
“There is an energy here that I believe will carry over long after the last speech is given and adds some gloss to the older traditions,” said Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Sewickley Republican who was watching from the Pennsylvania delegation's front-row seats to the right of the stage. “They didn't exactly throw out the whole playbook, but they did go for reaching out to voters in my district who are tired of the same old speeches.”
Sracic said the convention's nightly thematic variation on Trump's campaign slogan is effective.
“It's kind of smart media. You know ahead of time what the focus will be and that it will be across the board from a variety of very different kinds of voters.”
Chip Felkel, a South Carolina Republican strategist who worked on campaigns for both presidents Bush, said he is uneasy about the impulsiveness and brashness of Trump's style and isn't convinced that Trump's new way of doing things will begin a new tradition for the party.
“We are on the cusp of either a grand tour de force or an unmitigated disaster,” he said.
Trump's campaign is based on brilliant recklessness, dangerous arrogance or a mix of both, Felkel said. “They don't give a damn about the old guard, the longtime toiling in the vineyard, traditional GOP worker, donor or even candidate.”
Felkel is a more traditional Republican. He said Trump having beaten a lot of established candidates makes him more arrogant about not sticking to convention customs.
“That only fuels his enthusiasm for doing it his way,” he said.
David Urban, Trump's senior strategist for Pennsylvania, said breaking a few old-guard rules at a political convention contributes to the axiom that Trump is more electable and intriguing than past Republican candidates.
“This is a different candidate; we are having a different kind of campaign and certainly a different kind of convention,” Urban said. “We want people to be touched by stories from a variety of different people.”
“All I have to do is look around my district and see we are made up of a fabric of a lot of different kinds of people with a lot of different kinds of interests,” Rothfus said. “The message of security and jobs of the past two nights is going to appeal to them, especially delivered in a bit of an unconventional way.”
Ultimately, Felkel said, the question will be whether traditionalists like him are turned off by the show and stay home in numbers that will impact the results in November.
Salena Zito is Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.