The 2016 Republican National Convention may be over, but several Duke faculty noted that it shed light on the state of American politics.
The convention, held in Cleveland last week, featured many speakers including former presidential candidate Ben Carson, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Mike Pence and culminated with Republican candidate Donald Trump accepting the party's nomination for president on the final day. The four-day event received a mixed reception among the media and public. Several Duke professors noted the convention's strengths and weaknesses.
“I think it was on balance a fairly good four-day advertisement for Hillary Clinton,” said Thomas Pfau, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English who identifies as an independent. “They managed to created an unbelievable amount of bizarre footage and bizarre sound bites which I’m sure her campaign strategists will gleefully dip into.”
Controversial moments included Sen. Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump, which was met by boos from the audience, Trump’s interview with The New York Times on Wednesday in which he refused to automatically aid fellow NATO countries in the event of a war and a speech by Melania Trump which contained plagiarized material.
“If you were a student in one of my classes and you turned in a term paper, we routinely run anti-plagiarism software, and you would have been in really serious trouble,” said Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology who identifies as a Democrat. He referred to the incident as “shambles.”
Pfau criticized Trump’s comments about not necessarily honoring the NATO commitment if Russia were to invade the Baltic states as an example of his political incompetence and self-indulgence.
“Even a statement like that from a presidential candidate is extremely unnerving and doesn’t just call into attention the security of the Baltic republics but the integrity of NATO itself,” Pfau said. “He seems to have a tenuous grasp on international politics.”
Kerry Haynie, associate professor of political science and African and African American studies and a registered Democrat, explained that the convention could be viewed differently depending on one’s political views.
“The success was that Trump got his base—the voters and delegates that brought him to that place in the convention—enthused and riled up with the speech and the convention itself,” he said. “But I thought was a missed opportunity and a failure in the sense that it did not broaden his base of support.”
The convention appears to have bolstered support for Trump, but not significantly. The data journalism blog FiveThirtyEight increased Trump’s chances of winning the election from 36.7 percent July 17, the day before the convention’s start, to 39.6 percent July 24, based on their "polls-plus" forecast. He remains two percentage points behind Clinton in the polls, at 47.2 percent to her 45.3 percent as of Sunday evening.
“He will be facing a Democratic opponent who herself is weighed down by an unusual amount of baggage,” wrote Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and a registered Republican who served on the National Security Council during the President George Bush's term in office. “Trump may be the weakest candidate Republicans could have fielded in this cycle, but it is just possible he also may be strong enough to make the race more competitive than standard models would predict.”
Haynie explained that while the convention may have captured the vote of conservatives waiting to hear more of Trump’s message, it largely failed to connect with those on the fence.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“Primary elections are driven by small, extreme parts of the party. But when you come to the general election, you have to find a way to moderate one’s position to speak out to a broader base,” he said.
Feaver noted that Trump will have to contend with a divided party moving forward.
“The convention made it clear that Donald Trump may have won the nomination, but he has not unified the party or forged a formidable campaign team,” he wrote in an email. “He will enter the general election with a party more divided than it has been in decades.”
Pfau said that the convention felt more like a rally specifically designed for Trump supporters, failing not only to turn over new voters but also to unify the Republican Party due to the absence of conciliatory political arguments made by the speakers.
“Trump didn’t even try to placate or conciliate those of the Republican Party," he said. “It’s a sort of in-your-face approach, and I think it could hardly be said to be effective at gaining converts.”
Several notable Republican officials opted to skip the convention entirely, including former presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney—the 2008 and 2012 presidential candidates respectively—Ohio Gov. John Kasich and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham even took to Twitter to criticize Trump during the convention.
“Two living former Republican presidents not even mentioned at the convention and the number of prominent Republican elected officials who chose not to attend is an indication of a party that’s not united,” Haynie said.
The internal divisions in the Republican party will likely continue beyond the convention, Haynie noted. He predicted that if the Republicans lose in November, Trump’s faction will not be prominent anymore.
“My guess is there will be some further fracturing of the party and we may see an attempt to build another party outside of the realm of the Republican Party,” Haynie said. “It’d be quite hard to imagine some of the factions coexisting together such as the Cruz faction and the Bush faction of the party coexisting with the Trump faction.”
Regardless of which faction prevails, Haynie noted that the RNC illuminated a key flaw with the party that must be corrected going forward—the overwhelming presence of the older white male demographic.
Following the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party commissioned an "autopsy" study to refocus the direction of the party in order to win future elections. Although it found that the party needs to reach out to racial and ethnic minorities, women and young people, Haynie argued that the RNC has made no effort to do so.
“Long-term, you have to build a party differently than those demographics—it can’t be the basis of building a majority party,” he said.