The unconventional convention

Cleveland: When Donald Trump floated the idea that he might break with tradition and appear in person on all four nights of the GOP gathering here – because, well, it would be good for ratings – you knew deep down he was serious.

And with whatever passed for convention protocol having long since flown out the window, combined with multiple competing agendas among the attendees, it was always going to be a challenge to keep the party’s four-night infomercial “on message”.

As for TV ratings, apart from a solid opening night, the signs weren’t good that a “showbiz” convention was going to turn out any more successful than previous gatherings.

Advertising Age broke down which companies were advertising on network TV during the coverage: “.. Commercial loads during convention coverage were extremely limited, as CBS and ABC aired nine spots each while NBC ran just five. The usual suspects were on display (Pfizer, Vanda Pharmaceuticals, Novartis), but two movie ads snuck in as well, as Walt Disney Pictures promoted the upcoming kiddie flick Pete’s Dragon while Warner Bros bought two minutes of airtime on both ABC and CBS to hype its dark comedy War Dogs. Cable coverage was subsidized by automotive, pharma, quick-serve restaurants and political ads.”

Stick to the story

While the week’s programme was organised into four general nightly themes – “Make America Safe”, “Work”, “First” and “One Again” – it’s fair to say that on none of the nights was the Trump campaign’s intended message the actual story.

After the presumptive nominee took the stage to introduce his wife Melania on the opening night, the entire evening’s proceedings were overtaken by a plagiarism row that managed to rumble on through the rest of the week.

On the second night, after his nomination was confirmed, the candidate spoke to the faithful via a video link from Trump Tower in New York, much like John Hurt speaking to the masses in V for Vendetta. The third night, he showed up in the family “box” to watch his son Eric praise him, before the speech by his VP pick, Indiana governor Mike Pence. (Thankfully, to the relief of graphic designers everywhere, the campaign got around to fixing its original logo…)

No puppy dog

But that night – and possibly the convention as a whole – was overshadowed by Ted Cruz’s primetime “non-endorsement” which resulted in boos and insults hurled at Cruz and his wife (if yelling “Goldman Sachs” is really an insult in today’s Republican party).

And there was no shortage of controversy elsewhere at and surrounding the convention from speakers who weren’t named Trump, or other politicians, or activists, to drive the voracious appetite of social media.

From a strange salute  to an explicitly partisan prayer, to a dude setting himself on fire while trying to burn a flag, to taunts from the stage by a rock band to a field full of naked women.

Meanwhile, though, a pro-LGBT ad booked for Fox News during Trump’s acceptance speech – which itself was shrouded in chaos – acts as a reminder that this convention reinforced a very right-wing party platform and many serious things are at stake.

None more so than global diplomacy. That’s why, particularly in the wake of the attempted coup in Turkey, it was jarring to hear Trump seemingly sending mixed signals about possible changes to the US relationship with Nato.

As Charlie Pierce writes in Esquire, it’s important to bear in mind that “the candidate is ridiculous, but his campaign isn’t, and it never was.”

Even Michael Moore agrees. Real Clear Politics reports that the filmmaker told Bill Maher this week:

“I lived in Michigan, and let me tell you. It’s gonna be the Brexit strategy. The middle of England is Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes. The total number of electoral votes in those states in the rust belt, 64. All he has to do is win those four states. I was there during the primary, he went down and said they moved this factory down to Mexico, I’m putting a tariff on the cars, and it was music to people’s ears.”

On to the City of Brotherly Love

So things are well set up for Hillary Clinton and the DNC to prove their basic competence in Philadelphia next week.

And as the campaign looks to kickstart the week with some big news, the smart money seems to be on Virginia Senator Tim Kaine being tapped as Clinton’s running mate.

But such a move could backfire amid likely opposition from the progressive wing and give an added edge to the numerous anti-establishment protests already planned for the city.

Out on the political battleground, Clinton continues to outspend Trump by a huge margin – around 40-to-1 – yet polls keep showing the candidates virtually tied.

The Pro-Trump PAC Rebuilding America is set for a big spend in key states during the week of the Democratic convention. Whether that can move the needle remains to be seen. The campaign also reported this week that it had $20m cash-in-hand going into July, raising $26.7m in June, compared with Clinton’s $36m raised and $44m in hand.

Reid Wilson at The Hill writes that, at the moment, the Trump campaign has “virtually ceded the airwaves”, relying on convention-related free media.

“Clinton’s campaign is spending most heavily in Florida this week, where it has committed $1.1m on broadcast and cable television commercials in eight media markets throughout the state. She’ll appear in the Sunshine State on Friday and Saturday for events.

The campaign is spending $922,000 this week in Ohio – including $250,000 on broadcast and cable television in the Cleveland market, where Republicans are holding their convention. The campaign is spending more than $800,000 in Pennsylvania, more than $500,000 in North Carolina and more than $250,000 each in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Virginia.”

Among the ads the Clinton campaign is already running, one of the simplest yet most effective spots of the whole campaign so far is this one, “Role Models”.

As the Trump campaign ramps up its ad efforts into the post-convention stretch run, this is the bar they’ll have to reach.


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.

(He’ll be in Philadelphia next week, so if anyone wants to have a cup of coffee and talk politics, drop him a note at