Philadelphia – For the Democratic Party, this week started like it was going to be a classic exercise in political crisis management.
After the Republican gathering in Cleveland it seemed that all the Democrats needed to do was demonstrate a basic competence. But amid anger, street demonstrations and party infighting, that may have appeared a high bar – especially after DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down following a WikiLeaks release of thousands of emails giving fuel to Bernie Sanders supporters who felt the primary process had been stacked against them.
In subsequently naming Wasserman Schultz to an honorary role in their national campaign, the Clinton camp seemed to have lost the initiative on a potentially unifying moment; but in a more sinister development, Russian hackers were blamed – a story which would rumble for the rest of the week and appears set to be a factor during the remainder of the campaign.
With Sanders supporters already upset with Clinton’s choice of Virginia Sen Tim Kaine as her running mate, the potential for discord – and the damaging visuals that would go along with that – threatened to spoil the party.
Protests of varied intensity continued through the week inside and outside the hall – at times amid 100 degree temperatures. There were even instructions for “counter-chanting” circulated among Hillary Clinton supporters. (via @MattYglesias)
But by the time Mrs Clinton sealed her nomination as the first woman presidential nominee for a major party, the optics of the chaotic start had been largely turned around, thanks in large part to an inspiring speech by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Her address was widely praised, even by opponents, with Republican strategist Rick Wilson writing that “..a passionate speech with heart, poetry and grace is still one of the most powerful and effective tools in the political toolbox. It was the instrument of the speech itself that impressed me, not its politics. Even if you’re not a Michelle Obama fan, it was authentically her voice, beautifully crafted and strategically on point.”
Mrs Obama’s speech helped change the mood of the crowd and made it easier for Sanders to make a gracious, pragmatic speech to round off the opening night.
Amid the need to heal and present a unified front going into the final stretch of this still uncertain election, the Democrats this week faced two main challenges – re-branding a candidate that most of the electorate has an opinion about; and the fact that her opponent seems to have already staked out the position of being a “change agent” (even if more voters seem to think he would change things for the worse).
A unique threat
On the day after the Republican convention finished, The Washington Post produced a non-endorsement editorial unprecedented in modern politics, calling Trump “a unique threat to American democracy.”
But building on the wall-to-wall coverage from Cleveland, a slick new Trump ad by the Rebuilding America PAC began running in swing states.
With the race seemingly close, it’s going to be increasingly crucial for the two campaigns how they market their candidates in the final few months – it’s unusual for both Presidential aspirants to have such high name recognition and both be “more disliked than Voldemort.”
One of Trump’s characteristic stump phrases has been “I alone can fix it” – leading Yoni Appelbaum to ponder in The Atlantic: “Has any American political leader claimed so directly to embody the nation, to speak for it, to be its sole hope for redemption?
Clinton and the Democrats, meanwhile, will emphasize that “fixing” anything has to be a collective endeavour.
She has replaced the “I’m With Her” slogan from the primaries with “Stronger Together” and revamped her “It Takes A Village” message – her 20-year-old book title based on an African proverb – as part of an appeal to centrists and potential disaffected Republican voters; but at the same time trying to keep her own progressive wing engaged.
Will it work?
Clinton and Kaine head out on a bus tour of swing states in the next few days hoping to build on momentum from their convention. Even discounting the expected bump for Trump after the RNC, it must remain disconcerting for the Democrats that the two candidates are still broadly tied – certainly in terms of their unfavorability.
A Reuters poll on the day Clinton was nominated showed Trump edging the contest nationally, but – significantly – almost a quarter of those polled saying they are not committed to either candidate.
So the campaign heads into its final hundred days with the Russia hack story still smoldering and throwing a renewed emphasis on national security.
As he is entitled to as a presidential candidate, Trump will start to receive national security briefings this week, amid, as the Washington Post reports, “new signs of deep discomfort… among the upper ranks of the intelligence community.”
One section of Clinton’s acceptance speech on Thursday night was: “Donald Trump can’t even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign – imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis.
“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
The first Presidential debate is set for September 26th. There is certainly a lot of ground to cover before then.
FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.