When Democrats kicked off their virtual nominating convention Monday night, few viewers watched more closely than a handful of top aides to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
Eager to please their optics-obsessed boss, they took notes on which speakers worked well, which messages landed flat and how they can avoid the awkward moments and minor hiccups that opened the party’s unprecedented convention experience.
As Democrats pack their nightly two-hour programs with sharp denunciations of Trump from a medley of A-List celebrities, everyday Americans and party activists, the Trump campaign is honing its counter-punch. By hosting the Republican National Convention second, the president’s team hopes to give him the last word and use this week as an instructive exercise in what works and what doesn’t before they take the stage next week.
Monday’s program, emceed by actress Eva Longoria Bastón, featured a mishmash of pre-taped videos from prominent Democratic figures, musical performances and an assortment of personal testimonials about the effects of Trump’s rhetoric and behavior from ordinary voters. Though the theme was clear — guests repeatedly accused Trump of neglecting to keep Americans safe during the Covid-19 pandemic and deliberately demolishing democratic norms — the programming was at times uncomfortable. A stray camera focused too long on a pair of delegates tuned in via Zoom. A finger-wagging John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, begged Republicans to support Joe Biden from the middle of a field. A few speakers seemed unaware of the unflattering angle at which their cameras had been positioned.
“It was jarring to see,” said a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “They’re going first and it’s uncharted waters for everybody, but we’re definitely focused on what we’re doing and we feel pretty confident that we’ll have good stories and solid programming.”
Leah Daughtry, chief executive of the 2008 and 2016 Democratic nominating conventions, said the first night of this cycle’s Democratic convention was a good start even if there were a few “verbal burps here and there.” The challenge now, she added, is getting people to stay engaged for three more nights of programming.
The convention’s television ratings were significantly down from the first night of the 2016 convention but online and streaming views increased, allowing the Biden campaign to claim it had a bigger opening night audience. Big online view numbers, however, are easier to collect — one Facebook “view” only takes several seconds of a consumer’s time.
Trump campaign officials cast the timing of Democrats’ convention as especially helpful given their own efforts to put the finishing touches on the itinerary for the GOP convention next week. The similar four-night program will begin Aug. 24 and culminate with the president accepting his party’s nomination for reelection from the White House Rose Garden, an unprecedented move that has rankled his opponents. Instead of affording the bulk of their programming to party figures and activists, several aides said they hope to feature unconventional guests — including suburban men and women whose lives, they claim, would be disrupted by progressive policies and voters who can share personal stories related to recent cultural flashpoints.
The push by Trump aides to give more airtime to “normal” speakers follows an emotional appearance by Kristin Urquiza during the DNC’s Monday night program. Urquiza, whose 65-year-old father died of Covid-19 in Arizona this year, accused the president of promoting an attitude of indifference toward the deadly virus that cost her father his life.
“His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life,” she said before a national television audience.
Some Trump advisers, though annoyed with the substance, acknowledged the potency of Urquiza’s testimony compared to canned remarks from other convention speakers.
“The Arizona daughter who lost her dad to coronavirus was a cut through to the heart,” said one outside adviser to the Trump campaign.
“It reinforced the narrative that Trump has bungled coronavirus, which is something that’s on everyone’s minds right now.”
Republicans next week will aim to replicate Urquiza’s appeal with their own guests: Andrew Pollack, whose daughter was killed during the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February 2018; Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who’s been heralded in conservative circles for leaving the organization to become an outspoken opponent of abortion; former Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann, who recently settled defamation lawsuits with The Washington Post and CNN; and Ann Dorn, the widow of retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn, who was shot and killed while responding to a burglary during race-related protests in June.
“Part of our message will focus on how the suburbs are becoming unsafe because inner cities are unsafe, and Biden and Kamala are going to make it even worse. People who have been impacted by the lawlessness will speak,” said the outside Trump adviser.
Trump himself has also pushed to be featured more prominently in the Republican convention, alongside other party figures — including Vice President Mike Pence, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Tim Scott (S.C.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa), among other speakers.
Two Republicans close to the campaign said the president plans to have a presence each of the four days of the convention, either by video or through an appearance by one of his family members. Trump’s wife Melania and eldest son Don Jr. are both expected to speak. Even Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, whose stature as a MAGA star grew exponentially after he was ensnared in the Russia investigation, had been considered to speak at the convention next week, according to three people familiar with the situation, though he was ultimately passed over for other names.
Democrats do not seem worried about the last-word advantage GOP officials believe they have, in part because of differences in their production resources. The format of the Republican National Convention went through numerous iterations before Trump finally announced at the end of July that he was canceling the most prominent physical portions altogether, leaving campaign aides and officials involved in planning the convention scrambling as they worked to assemble a virtual convention in one month.
“We’ve got all the Hollywood people on our side so we get all the best advice,” boasted Daughtry.
As for Republicans making potential changes to their speaking roster and programming based on the Democrats’ convention, Daughtry said it’s nothing new: “Anytime we go first, they are always in a scramble to adjust their convention.”
Other Democrats involved in the party’s convention said they were especially proud of how their program has so far weaved in accounts from ordinary people along with bold-faced names. That process began on June 29 when the party realized that in-person convening would be difficult, if not impossible, in the age of Covid-19.
As a result, they set up a portal inviting people to submit their own stories and videos and then selected certain entries to insert throughout the televised program each evening. The crowdsourcing attempt brought in over 1,000 submissions, according to convention spokesperson Ofirah Yheskel.
“It’s what the internet is all about, or at least what the internet should all be about,” said Lindsay Holst, a senior adviser for special projects at the convention. “The real opportunity of the internet is connecting with people beyond your own lived experiences.”
Trump’s team believes the combination of their own stories from ordinary voters, combined with the elegance of the White House as a backdrop, will make their own convention feel more energetic and organized than the Democrats’ program despite the restrictions Covid-19 has imposed on both parties.
The RNC filed a permit earlier this week to launch fireworks from the Washington Monument as soon as the president finishes his acceptance speech at the White House, another flashy move aimed at capturing viewers’ attention. Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, said the studio from which Longoria Bastón hosted the convention on Monday night made the program feel “indistinguishable from a regular CNN segment” at times.
But they are also borrowing ideas from the Democrats’ convention playbook. After several Republicans spoke in favor of Biden during the DNC on Monday — they included Kasich, the former Ohio governor, former California GOP Senate candidate Meg Whitman, former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) and former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman — Trump campaign officials confirmed that they, too, will focus part of their programming on bipartisan support for the president. According to two officials familiar with the planning, Georgia Democratic Rep. Vernon Jones, who announced his support for Trump’s reelection earlier this year, will make an appearance next week.
Anita Kumar and Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.