This week the Republican National Convention, being held in Cleveland, Ohio, takes the center stage of the political world. With the unpredictable Donald Trump as the GOP nominee, described by admirers and critics alike as a master showman, ratings for this convention could eclipse any in modern times. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, Trump aides have said they plan to use the convention to showcase Trump as a business leader and family man, as opposed to traditional conventions which also highlighted the principles of the party. In that sense, this convention will truly be what The Hill newspaper and many others are calling the Trump Show.
As we’ve done in the past, NAIOP and its Government Affairs staff are at the convention, participating in events designed to highlight matters important to the real estate industry, and meeting with elected officials to educate them on our organization and the issues important to our members. While the cameras are focused on what happens inside the convention hall (or on protesters), a lot of new relationships are formed, and existing relationships cemented, at these political gatherings. There is simply no other venue where as many federal and state elected officials convene at one time.
Yet there is no denying that the focus of this convention, more so than other political convention in the past, will be on the nominee and his personal qualities rather than on policy. In fact, regarding tax policy – an area of utmost importance to NAIOP and its members – the Trump campaign’s advisors have been revising his original tax proposals. A lot of things candidate Trump has said, including his call to end capital gains treatment for carried interest compensation, directly impact the bottom line of many of NAIOP’s members. We’ll have to wait for any answers to our policy questions, because the attention at this convention will not be on the party platform or where the Republican Party stands on issues, but on Trump himself.
And he will need all of the attention and high ratings if he is to turn this race around. Just prior to the convention, three major national polls showed Trump trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump was losing to Clinton by five points in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 46 percent to 41 percent. Clinton was beating Trump by seven points in a CNN/ORC poll, 49 percent to 42 percent, and by four points in a Washington Post/ABC News poll. In addition, interviews conducted by Morning Consult of 57,000 voters nationally had Clinton defeating Trump in the Electoral College by a margin of 320-212.
But beneath the surface, this race can quickly turn, particularly if Trump’s theory that he can win enough disaffected working class voters in the Midwest to flip traditionally Democratic states holds true. The same Morning Consult polling data that showed Clinton handily defeating Trump in the Electoral College has him within two points of her in eight key states. Put a few of those in the Trump column, and you have a different outcome.
When thinking of elections, analysts look at the quantifiable, and then speculate as to the impact of the unpredictable. The former includes things such as historical voting patterns, demographics and turnout, the rate of economic growth and unemployment, the Electoral College advantage that Democrats currently hold over Republicans, and importantly, how united a party is coming out of their convention. The unpredictable includes such things as debate flops, “October surprises” of some sort, terrorist attacks, whether a candidate might be indicted (which didn’t happen) and other events that reinforce one candidate’s narrative over another.
This time, the predictable factors favor the Democrats. But as many analysts have found, predictions on Trump’s demise have been embarrassingly wrong. In order to have a realistic shot of winning in November, Trump’s convention must provide some reason for hesitant Republicans (and Republican-leaning voters), to feel more comfortable in supporting him. Party unity is one of those measurable factors that Trump can affect now, to give him a post-convention bounce that could put him slightly ahead of Clinton before the Democratic convention.
After that, Trump’s unpredictability – his biggest weakness – could also be his biggest strength in keeping him in the race. In 1976, during a debate with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford incorrectly stated that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union, an embarrassing gaffe exploited by Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Carter tried paint Reagan as dangerous and even deranged, only to have Reagan disarm the public with his calm demeanor during the debates. Mitt Romney famously had a leaked video showing him speaking about “47 percent” of Americans being on the government dole. How will Trump perform at the debates? Hard to predict indeed.