Donald Trump’s Thursday night address, indeed his entire Republican convention, represented a high-risk bet: that a strong desire for change in November will defy the demographic and political tides that have defeated the last two Republican presidential nominees.
The Republican nominee only glancingly reached out to voters other than the ones who led him to victory in the Republican primaries, who make up a much smaller proportion of the November electorate.
He repeatedly spoke of the perils of illegal immigration and trade deals, positions that invigorate the white, blue-collar voters with whom he is most popular.
But apart from a mention of college tuition ills, he said nothing about fresh issues or emphases that might be helpful in attracting women, minority voters or young Americans, the three groups whose increasingly Democratic alliances represent the greatest threat to his candidacy. Those voters were key to successive Republican defeats in 2008 and 2012 — and their numbers have grown since.
Appeals to a broader audience were left to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who introduced her father. She said that he planned to provide for quality childcare, equal pay for women, and college aid. None of those issues had been a priority for her father during the long months of the primary campaign, and none was mentioned in his speech.
Instead, the speech, the most anticipated event of the four-day convention, was a slightly more formal, if lengthy, version of the one Trump has been delivering in the 13 months since he entered the race.
He presented a bleak view of America, blamed President Obama for dividing the country by race, and accused Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton of being a “puppet” of a “rigged system” that spreads “destruction.”
Only toward the end of his 75-minute address did Trump graft on a bit of optimism, suggesting that the nation’s problems have all been caused by politicians and would be quickly solved with his election.
“America is a nation of believers, dreamers and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics and cynics,” he said.
His tone was entirely in keeping with the convention, which repeatedly foundered over internal divisions but found emphatic unanimity in its opposition to Clinton and to any extension of Obama’s tenure.
One of the audience’s most vociferous reactions came when Trump said that the FBI had used mild terms regarding Clinton’s private email use as secretary of State to “save her from facing justice for her terrible crimes.”
“Lock her up! Lock her up!” delegates shouted.
Trump came into the convention’s final night with Republicans hoping for a rapid change of conversation after days in which self-inflicted wounds had interfered with the highest-profile opportunity for the new nominee to impress American voters.
With patriotic staging and thematic appeals, conventions are meant to flesh out the candidate, as if turning a black-and-white stick figure into a lushly defined future president. Done well, they are minutely timed, extended campaign commercials whose worst quality is that they’re perfect to the point of boring.
This one was far from that.
On none of the four nights did the message put out by the speakers wholly match the theme organizers had set for the day. Speakers who were meant to emphasize the need to create jobs, for example, were spread out over several nights, diluting what could have been a more forceful presentation of Republican goals on Tuesday, the night employment was supposed to be the theme.
Part of the difficulties stem from lingering problems between substantial portions of the party and its new leader. Many of the guests onstage spent little time talking about Trump, a reflection of the distance some Republicans are putting between themselves and him.
On Wednesday night, Trump’s most persistent primary opponent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, appeared onstage and told delegates — and the extended television audience — to vote their consciences in November. That tacit suggestion that they consider abandoning the party’s nominee underscored the ideological battles dividing Republicans.
It is also the case that Trump holds a quirky ideology that combines Wall Street and populist flavors, a mix not seen in a nominee in recent decades. Thursday night demonstrated that anew.
Trump talked of his opposition to international trade deals that have been highly popular within his party, and U.S. involvement in Mideast conflicts that began under a Republican president.
But he also strode in the path of other Republicans, chiefly Richard Nixon, in casting himself as a president who would clamp down on an out-of-control society and blaming “elites” for spurning common Americans.
He vowed to make Americans safe here and abroad, exaggerating to suggest that crime is rising dramatically — it isn’t — and saying that when he takes office, he “will restore law and order to our country.”
But at the same time, he hit on some themes more common to Democrats. He went out of his way to vow to protect gay Americans — at least from attacks by jihadi terrorists — although he said nothing about extending their rights in this country.
The problem facing Trump is that while Republicans have largely forgiven his ideological diversions, his strongly conservative positions — including deporting immigrants who are here without papers, building a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, opposing abortion rights and gun restrictions — are wildly unpopular among America’s expanding voter groups.
Republicans had hoped that the convention would give Trump entrée to those voters by exploring what organizers called the facets of his personality that are not as well-known as his building empire. His adult children — Ivanka, Eric, Tiffany and Donald Jr. — all testified to their father’s drive, kindness and support.
Friends also offered testimonials.
But Trump is an outsized personality, and it is his characterizations, not anecdotes related third-hand, that are likely to matter the most to voters. He still has explained his broad goals more than how he would achieve them; he said Thursday that he would dispatch ISIS and solve economic problems swiftly, as if they were easy marks.
The current president has, of course, tried to do that as well. If voters decide that Obama’s path is worth pursuing further, Clinton’s odds of victory improve.
But Trump is betting that what they want is change, and that voters’ desire for a new course will overcome the demographic momentum that has swamped the last two Republican nominees.
Thursday night, he made clear he would not hedge that bet. In just over three months, he will discover if it pays off.