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On Monday, a Times Insider article featured a discussion among Times national political reporters moderated by Rachel Dry, deputy politics editor, that was held after the Democratic National Convention. Here, in part 2, the national reporters John Eligon, who covers race, Annie Karni, who covers the White House, and Jonathan Martin, who covers politics, joined Ms. Dry for a live talk on Friday about the Republican National Convention. Both forums were part of the Election 2020 event series. Here are edited excerpts.
Jonathan, talk about how President Trump and the Republicans chose to frame the events in Kenosha, Wis. What distinction are they drawing with Democrats about law and order?
JONATHAN MARTIN The president is running in a moment where the country is suffering from a pandemic that has killed more than 180,000 people and thrown millions out of work, so Republicans see the Kenosha event as an opportunity to recast the campaign and make it more about disorder in American cities and charging that Joe Biden would tolerate or enable that. Obviously, it’s tough to drive that message when Mr. Biden is not the president when this is happening, but this is a matter of political necessity. It makes Biden have to walk more of a line between expressing sympathy for the victims of police brutality and having to condemn the excesses of these protests.
Annie, we heard a lot about women, about suffrage. There was a lot of programming that hit that message. What do you think the aim of that was?
ANNIE KARNI The phrase I was tracking went like, “I wish you could see what I see”: this empathetic president who is kind. This was a theme over and over. It was an acknowledgment that he needs to increase his support with suburban women. That’s the best path he has to re-election, and it was a clear acknowledgment that just the base is not going to be enough. This could create a permission structure for voters who are on the fence, who don’t like his personal style, who don’t want to think of themselves as someone who votes for someone who promotes racist conspiracy theories. That might work with some voters who don’t like Biden, who don’t like Trump but like Trump’s policies. The question is: How much will this stick given that the president undermines his message all the time?
MARTIN If there’s any consistency of the Trump era it’s that the president will always change the topic to something else tomorrow or the next week, and so by that standard, I’m just not sure that these conventions will have that much of a lasting impact. Also, generally these conventions are drawing more partisans than undecided voters, both Democrat and Republican. I just don’t get the sense that there’s a lot of everyday people trying to figure out what they’re going to do who are watching these conventions.
John, in your reporting around the country, what is your sense of how people think about the president on race, and who might that message from Black speakers at the convention — “The president was a good guy to me” — have been intended for?
JOHN ELIGON On the one hand, it’s what Annie was alluding to: Part of it is to get some of these swing voters. But I also think there is a lane where in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, where the margins are going to be super thin, there is this argument that you can peel off some Black support toward Trump through economic arguments. Like in Michigan: “Hey, you know those auto jobs are going overseas and I’m going to bring them back.” That can appeal to a certain slice of African-American voters.
KARNI It’s always been a game at the margins. His advisers have never said he’s going to win Black voters. It’s about doing a little bit better than last time. That’s all that they want to do. But one problem with the pitch to Black voters, what I’ve heard from people doing focus groups, is that his strongest pitch before the coronavirus was simply that the economy was doing well and that Black Americans were benefiting from that — people had jobs, and that was appealing to voters across the country of all colors. And that piece of the argument to Black voters has been decimated by the virus.
ELIGON There is also an argument that there is a greater awareness among some Black voters that the Democratic Party has not necessarily represented their interest in the best way, though most Black voters still see it as the best alternative compared to the Republican Party. But sowing this doubt — that Democrats have not benefited Black voters — could pull support away and can keep people from going out to vote. That’s definitely one argument the Trump campaign seems to be trying to push.
How was this convention aimed at the swing states that were fundamental to his 2016 win?
MARTIN If you look at the polling, the president has been trailing Biden consistently, but the margins got worse over the summer, and there’s been some analysis about what happened. You can basically trace it back to June and July, when two things happened. He responded to the Black Lives Matter protest in a way that was incendiary and turned off a lot of voters, including center and center right voters, and then the coronavirus flared back up and he wasn’t showing urgency in his response. Those two issues have given Biden a larger lead that may be temporary, so I think the mission in this convention was looking to places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and trying to get back some of those voters they lost.
The next Election 2020 series live event, on the evolving electorate, is Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. E.D.T. Click here to R.S.V.P.