Like so many Canadians, I can’t resist following U.S. politics in a presidential election year. This year, as I have done since the 2000 elections, I was an on-air analyst for both conventions for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation–French sector). Attending the Republican convention in Cleveland and the Democratic convention in Philadelphia gave me first-hand knowledge of the mood and the tone of the American political scene in 2016, and it was striking.
Never before have I seen such a gap between the two major parties and between their respective nominees.
First, the Republican Party. The confirmation of Donald Trump as the nominee represents a major change, some would say a revolution, in the ranks of the party. An unconventional outsider with no political experience and with a reputation for bombast and self-promotion, Trump succeeded in beating 16 rivals and the so-called GOP establishment in a primary season that saw the participation of the largest number of Republican voters in the party’s history. Trump clearly won the delegate count, but it’s not clear that he won hearts and minds of the overall Republican Party. The glaring absences of a number of party elders and personalities at the party convention indicate that he has not.
The Cleveland-held convention was a combination of self-inflicted errors (Melania Trump’s plagiarism of a Michelle Obama speech) and out-in-the-open dissension with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement (he was actually booed off the stage and his wife needed security protection as she was leaving the convention center). And a number of party and convention veterans declared Donald Trump’s acceptance speech as “Midnight in America”—a sharp contrast to Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” speech.
The speeches seemed united more in “Hate Hillary” than in putting forward any new innovative or inspiring policy proposals. Some speakers accused her of causing destruction, others of her being responsible for murder in Benghazi, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pretended to conduct a “mock trial” of her record as a public servant with the crowd chanting “lock her up.” Former New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani delivered a strident and aggressive speech that had some analysts, myself included, wondering whether he had become unhinged. From the point of communications and image, the Republican Party seemed less the party of Lincoln and Reagan than ever in its history. There was no optimism, idealism or hope in the arena.
The fact that former nominee Bob Dole was the only past nominee to be present, that Ohio Governor John Kasich refused to attend and that the entire Bush family withheld endorsement only demonstrates that the Republican convention in Cleveland was more about Trump himself and his dark indictment of America’s state of the union, both domestically and in foreign relations, than the Republican vision of the future.
Donald Trump’s delivery in the closing speech of the convention was in total anger as he affirmed that he alone can solve America’s ills. His delivery contrasted sharply with how the Trump children tried to portray him as a caring and doting father. Exploiting the recent shootings in Baton Rouge and Dallas, he proclaimed himself the “law and order” candidate in the November election—shades of Nixon in 1968.
Clearly, the Republican Party is far from where it was in the last presidential election with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as the standard bearers, not to mention since the heyday of Ronald Reagan. Romney openly opposes Trump and Ryan has given his lukewarm endorsement. For the many Canadians observing the Cleveland GOP show, many came away worried whether Trump’s view of the world—banning Muslims, building walls, tearing up existing free trade agreements, questioning NATO’S continued relevance, sanctioning torture, to mention a few highlights—would prevail in November. His latest tirades against a gold-star family (Khizir and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq) has only raised more questions about the nominee’s temperament and values as a possible commander-in-chief.
Now, the Democrats. While the Democrats have become the minority party in Congress and in the states’ governorships, they have won four of the last six Presidential elections (even winning the popular vote in five of the six contests). Considering the American electorate’s penchant for term limits and a desire for change, in normal times the Democratic ticket of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine would face an uphill battle. But Trump is not a conventional, nor traditional, candidate to say the least. Clinton and Kaine enter the post-convention season with polls giving them the lead.
The Democrats also benefit from an electoral map that has been, consistent for the past six presidential cycles, in their favor. Some states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan are considered key states but they remain consistently blue (Democratic). Minorities continue to increase in their share of the popular vote (expected to be 29-30 percent of voters in 2016 compared to 15 percent in 1984) and are strongly Democratic.
The two electoral college victories by George W. Bush (in 2000 and 2004) were close and depended on the results in just two swing states—Florida and Ohio. The Democrats, on the other hand, won with comfortable margins of over 300 electoral votes (270 is the required number to be elected as President) when Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012.
The Democrat convention in Philadelphia contrasted sharply from that of the Republicans. Their message depicted an America that is more united than divided, and where hope and a belief in a better future will always guide their policies and governance.
Their star-studded convention with high level speeches—President Obama, his wife Michelle, Vice-President Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, former rival Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to mention a few—provided an entertaining and upbeat program meant to show a united front. Despite some obvious tensions between the more progressive wing of the party (the Sanders crowd) and the Democratic National Convention leadership (DNC)—enhanced by an email controversy provoked by WikiLeaks on Day one of the convention—the party tried hard to present an enthusiastic and united endorsement of the Clinton-Kaine ticket. To a large extent, it succeeded.
Listening to policy proposals familiar to them and hearing uplifting messages from the President, the Vice-President and key figures in the party, most Canadians prefer Clinton’s view of the world to Trump’s.
The goals of any party convention are to show party unity, introduce the nominee to a national audience in primetime, adopt a party platform, and define the adversary. Both parties are spinning the narrative that they have achieved their aims. However, in this age of social media, and shortened news cycles, these conventions will play a less influential and determining role than in the past. Yet both conventions presented stark contrasts in policies, messaging and their choice of standard bearers. And it is already clear this will not be an ordinary campaign. We can expect insults, overheated rhetoric and possibly the least inspiring campaign in U.S. history.
Now with the nominees chosen and the party conventions over, the real contest begins. This is one election that Canadians will follow very closely. But not so much as the greatest democratic spectacle on the planet; rather because the two major political parties present highly different views of the world that many might find chilling.
Being the optimists we like to think we are, it is fair to say that we prefer an America that is more inclusive, outgoing and predictable. Right now, the Democratic ticket and platform seem more in line with Canadian values and how Canadians see the world.