Lord Ashcroft’s Republican Convention Diary: Days Three and Four
“This is not the weirdest election in history, just in our lifetimes": Karl Rove
Jul 24, 2016
“This is not the weirdest election in history, just in our lifetimes": Karl Rove
This is a guest post by Lord Ashcroft, who sat on the Conservative benches of the House of Lords until 2015, having been ennobled as a life peer in 2000. He is a businessman, politician and a former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party.
Lord Ashcroft’s Diary from days one and two can be seen here.
The reporters, commentators and political professionals we have spoken to in Cleveland have been remarkably open in admitting they were wrong about Donald Trump’s chances. “I was speaking at a meeting last August, and I told them there was absolutely no way Trump would be the nominee,” one experienced campaign consultant confessed.
And finally, they assumed that Trump would simply implode after one gaffe too many. Instead, he had if anything been strengthened (at least with primary voters) from a series of self-generated hullabaloos, any one of which might have finished a more conventional candidate.
They started to realise he could win for different reasons – when he drew huge crowds to rallies in unexpected places with people you might not expect to see at a Republican event; when he shrugged off incidents that would have sunk other candidates; and when it dawned on them that he was serious about it himself: “when his pronouncements started to hurt his business brand, when he started to sacrifice things for this goal, I knew he was for real,” one journalist told us.
It was some comfort that his fellow candidates had not seen it coming either: “It’s not just the media that got it wrong, everyone got it wrong.”
This was echoed by senior staffers from three rival primary campaigns who came to speak to us: “When the campaign started, no-one saw this guy Trump.” One reason was that, from the outset, Trump refused to play by the normal rules. “We thought the Republican Party had four buckets,” one of them told us. “Moderates, libertarians, Tea Party conservatives and evangelical conservatives. We decided we needed evangelicals, Rubio and Bush would fight for the moderates, and so on. Some candidates make the mistake of trying to play all four buckets. We’re at his convention today.”
As Trump gathered more and more support “we began to understand the degree to which political physics were not playing a part in the campaign … It was like trying to get a grip on applesauce.” In any other year, “his policy positions would have killed him. He had talked about gun control but he was getting votes from libertarian hunters in New Hampshire. They were voting for the tone and the persona.”
The media had been a major factor. One recalled ruefully that they had been unable to persuade the networks to show up at a major campaign event for their candidate. “If Donald Trump had farted on air, they would have covered it live, with a panel beforehand to discuss which way the wind was blowing.”
In retrospect, “if you rewind the whole thing, there should have been a healthy conversation about stopping the train that was gathering speed”, though none of our panel was very confident anything would have worked. And as the election season drags on, rational decisions are harder and harder to make as everyone is so exhausted: “The way these guys run, it’s amazing what they do every day. The most precious thing you protect as a campaign manager is the candidate’s sleep, but you can’t make them sleep once they get in their hotel room. They watch TV and check Twitter all night.”
Most of the action at the Republican Convention takes place in the evening, when the delegates gather to be entertained and inspired. I have made the most of the chance to enjoy the atmosphere and meet some of the delegates (including some from Texas, pictured above), and to revive some old friendships.
Earlier in the year I met Mike Pence, Governor of Indiana, (also pictured) at the Kentucky Derby. Though he expects to be Vice President, he assured me his invitation to next year’s Indianapolis 500 still stands.
A senior Trump advisor told us the campaign had three goals for the week in Cleveland: to show people a new side of the candidate “that they don’t always get from his TV show”, including his family life; to describe the challenges facing America as seen by ordinary people; and to highlight the answers they propose: “one of the myths perpetuated is that we don’t have policy solutions.” Unusually, there would be no chance of the post-Convention bounce in the polls that campaigns hope to see, since the Democrats are following on next week. Once the campaign gets into full swing, we could expect to see Trump’s children taking a more active role in the campaign, and more talk about policy, especially on the economy, border control, energy independence and foreign affairs: “In the Cuban missile crisis, we were actually afraid for our own personal safety. That went away. With ISIS, people are literally scared for their own lives.”
There would also be a relentless focus on Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State: “Right now, she probably wishes she didn’t have a record.”
The campaign hoped to appeal to voters who felt the economy had left them behind, who “don’t see the next generation doing better than this one”, and are so disaffected that they had stopped voting: they believe twenty-five million evangelical voters did not participate in 2012 but could be persuaded to do so this time. This way, they could put in play states that had not been competitive in recent presidential elections.
Didn’t that seem optimistic, given the level of distaste for both candidates? “When the country is frustrated, turnout goes up. One of the few places people have to take out their frustration is the polling booth.” Would Trump be toning down his language now that he was out of the primaries and addressing the whole country? No again: “Mr Trump’s appeal is that he tells it like it is. What has frustrated American voters is that politicians seem so guarded because all they want to do is get re-elected, so they never get to a solution.” (Indeed, as we heard from another campaign professional, some voters give him the benefit of the doubt on his wilder statements – not being a politician, he has not had the practice at politician-speak).
How worried was the campaign that senior figures in the party had decided to stay away from the Convention? Not at all. If anything, they reinforce the candidate’s anti-establishment credentials: “There is a frustration in America that he has captured, and Bernie Sanders did on the Democratic side as well. I think the party is coming together well. The best example is not the people at the convention but support from the Republican party – we’re getting 88 or 90 per cent of the Republican vote. Whether John Kasich shows up in Cleveland matters less than whether Donald Trump is capturing their imagination.”
OK, but what about Mrs Trump’s now notorious speech? Was the plagiarism a deliberate ploy to associate Melania with Michelle Obama, casting her in their minds as First Lady, with Donald in the Oval Office, thereby getting the voters to think past the sale? “I wish we were that smart.”
A bullish view, and one shared by some on the teams of his primary adversaries. “I think he can win”, one told us. “They don’t like him, but they don’t like her either … If I have to bet I truly think he wins. Gary Johnson [the Libertarian candidate] and the Greens could get ten per cent, so he has to get to forty-five, and I think he can do it. If you take Romney’s score among white voters and add 3.1 per cent, which he could do, and increase their turnout by 3.1 per cent, which he could do, he doesn’t need a single minority vote.”
The others were more equivocal: “If he can convince people he can handle the nuclear codes and not blow up Denmark because someone tweeted against him, that will make a difference.” He would need a more serious attitude to policy and debate preparation: “The one-liners can get you to Cleveland but I don’t think they get you to Washington.”
This was too sanguine a view for Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia (who is a very wise man: he told me he reads everything on Lord Ashcroft Polls and was particularly impressed with my EU referendum-day poll). Professor Sabato is behind the modestly titled Crystal Ball website, which currently predicts a Clinton victory by 347 to 191 in the electoral college.
The electorate doesn’t like to give parties a third term in the White House (“tenure is great for academics and we deserve it! But for politicians it’s a terrible idea”). Had the Republicans nominated any of three or four of the primary candidates, they would therefore probably be ten points ahead now. But “partisans do strange things that don’t necessarily further their interests. This is Exhibit A, believe me. Every now and then, a party commits suicide. It happens. Then you have resurrections. Four years after Goldwater, there was Nixon. Four years after McGovern, there was Carter.”
It was not impossible for Trump to win – he rated the chances at thirty or thirty-five per cent – but for it to become a realistic prospect would probably take an unexpected recession or a series of domestic (not international) terrorist attacks.
The map was a huge hurdle for the campaign, but there was one legitimate if unlikely possibility: if Trump won all the states Romney won in 2012, plus Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, he would get to 270 electoral college votes: the magic number.
What would it take for Trump to win California? “A major earthquake that takes out northern California and most of the rest of the state. I think even Orange County is going to vote for Hillary Clinton this time.”
One feature of the campaign that everyone seems to agree on is that the battle is between the two most unpopular candidates of modern times. Among Trump supporters, the proportion saying they have an unfavourable view of Hillary Clinton is in the high nineties; the same is true of Trump’s unfavourable rating among Clinton voters. Meanwhile, “undecideds hate them both”, according to the experienced campaign pollster Greg Strimple, who came to speak to our group of international visitors.
“The best thing each candidate has going for them is an opponent who is not liked,” we heard from Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. “If her problem is motivating the Democratic base, no-one will do it better than Donald Trump.” At the same time, Clinton’s presence on the ballot is Trump’s biggest advantage – reinforcing the trend towards what Professor Larry Sabato calls “negative partisanship”, where party supporters turn out in droves for the sole purpose of defeating the other side.
A further consequence is that, come January, we could well see the lowest ever approval ratings for an incoming President. The new chief executive usually enjoys a rallying, but this seems unlikely given the climate. As Walter told us, “it used to be that the President got a honeymoon. This one will be lucky to get a weekend away.”
On both sides, the effort to reinforce those views is unrelenting. Thousands of hours and tens of millions of dollars are devoted to opposition research. The file on Hillary Clinton already runs to more than 7,500 pages, according to Joe Pounder, who runs America Rising, a political action committee dedicated to “exposing the truth about Democrats”.
A major part of their effort is video tracking – following Democratic candidates with cameras wherever they go, in the hope of capturing something that could be used as ammunition against them or even, in some cases, change the course of a race. Their operatives have already attended around 3,500 Democratic events in 2015 alone.
Perhaps their most spectacular success to date was filming Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley telling trial lawyers at a Texas fundraising event that if the Democrats lost control of the Senate, its Judiciary Committee could be chaired by “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Iowan voters did not take kindly to the insult to farmers, or their popular Senator Chuck Grassley (who did indeed go on to become Chairman of the Judiciary Committee). Braley is now a former Congressman.
Even when public views of a candidate are well established, these tactics can undermine their campaigns. Last July, a video tracker from America Rising filmed Hillary Clinton boarding a private jet in Des Moines after giving a speech about climate change. The Clinton campaign responded by promising to be carbon neutral, but its next set of spending returns made no mention of carbon offset – a second story.
The group knows where to draw the line, Pounder explained. They do not film candidates’ families, and they stay the right side of privacy laws, which vary from state to state. Besides, there was no need to break the rules: “We have too much good information to screw up by doing something really stupid.”
I have been here with a delegation from the International Democrat Union, a grouping of centre-right parties from around the world. We had the privilege earlier in the week of hearing from Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential election victories. He reminded us to keep some perspective: “This is not the weirdest election in history, just in our lifetimes”. The point was illustrated in his new book, The Triumph of William McKinley, in which he looked back over the history of American politics to an era of “sex, violence, backstabbing, betrayal and really cool nicknames.”
He told us all sorts of other interesting things, but insisted they stay in the room. “I don’t want to be tweeted. Just remember I still have a lot of friends in the intelligence community.”
Wandering on the Convention floor I ran into Senator Mike Lee. As well as kindly inviting me to visit Utah, he – like Congressman Brady earlier in the week – said he would be happy to support a UK-US trade deal. Far from being at the back of the queue, it seems our allies are queueing up to help.
Ben Ginsberg, an MSNBC commentator famous as one of the lawyers working for George W. Bush on the 2000 Florida recount, explained to us some of the mysteries of the Convention. For example, even most of the delegates have no particular loyalty to the presumptive nominee: “Most of them are not there because they love Donald Trump, but because their brother-in-law is the county chairman. It’s a great tactic if they’re coming over for Christmas – make them a delegate and they might not behave like such a jerk.”
After the rules fight, the Melania plagiarism mini-scandal and the reaction to Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement (which, I can tell you, was a thing to behold – more like a 1980s Labour Party conference than the fully scripted American convention we have become used to), the week has not gone entirely to plan for the Trump campaign. “But that’s all process,” Ginsberg says. “The long term takeaway is whether Donald Trump delivers tonight.”
This would involve defining himself against his opponent (“not a heavy lift in this case”), and articulating a long term positive view for where he wants to take the country.
The campaign that follows will be brutal. With the two least popular candidates in history, “both candidates have got the only opponent they could possibly beat.” The debates, if they happen, will be fascinating, and could be the most-watched TV events in political history. “I have been fortunate enough to help candidates prepare for TV debates. It is as difficult, tension-filled a process as you can imagine. Imagine Donald Trump having to stand up for ninety minutes answering questions about substantive policy issues.” And for Hillary, “having to deal with a totally unpredictable debater in the form of Donald Trump can’t give her a warm and comfortable feeling in the cockles of her heart.”
A number of clever people have told us in plain terms just how hard it is for Donald Trump to win. Amy Walters says it comes down to “the mood and the map”. The mood is that people want major change, even if it’s not possible to predict what that change will be. Many people have still not recovered from the 2008 crash, and “if things are not working, they don’t trust institutions to fix things because they don’t trust the institutions themselves.”
But then there is the map. The thirteen states have been carried by every Republican candidate since 1992 add up to 102 electoral votes; the eighteen that the Democrats have consistently won over the same period add up to 242. If Clinton wins every state John Kerry won in 2004 she is more than 90 per cent of the way to 270, and if she then wins Florida it’s all over.
On top of that are the demographics. In 2000, the electorate was 81 per cent white. In 2016, this is likely to have fallen to 70 per cent. In 2004, 43 per cent of Hispanics voted for President Bush (“his Spanish is as good as his English”, as the old joke goes); only 27 per cent voted for Romney eight years later, and Trump’s numbers among the same group are in the teens. A recent survey found that zero per cent (yes) of African Americans had a favourable view of the Republican nominee.
On paper, Trump is claiming a lower share of a growing market, and his path to 270 electoral college votes looks perilously narrow.
The veteran Ben Ginsberg is not so sure: “When I worked for Reagan in the 1980s, the Republicans had a lock on the electoral college. It would never be broken, until it was. For it to be broken, you need a disruptive candidate. Like Donald Trump.”
And think of the times: “Would you prefer to be the establishment candidate with the perfect résumé, who had done everything you’re supposed to do to be president, or the ‘throw all the bums out’ candidate? In this particular year?”