Through a series of articles called 'The State', the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects of the 2020 campaign season, including the race for the White House and key elections around the country. Contributions are from Cody Lyon, AFBF Managing Director of Advocacy and Political Affairs, Randy Dwyer AFBF Director of Advocacy & Grassroots Development, and Michael Sistak, AFBF Director of Grassroots Program Development.
Both the Democratic & Republican National Conventions took center stage recently and delivered their message to the voters. Both conventions were forced to become virtual events due to COVID. The Democrats’ version had few technical hiccups. Republican convention planners took similar steps to ensure a smooth-running series of speakers. Both conventions featured vignettes including minorities, small business owners, front-line responders, former military leaders and current office holders. Below is some coverage of both conventions, and their impact on agricultural policy.
The Republican National Convention
Cody Lyon: In a nomination acceptance speech on the South Lawn of the White House, President Trump officially, and enthusiastically, declared his intention to be reelected.
His speech had two objectives: appeal to suburban and working-class voters who dislike much of the rhetoric but like many of his policies and instill the fear factor for the Biden-Harris ticket. Fear is a hugely powerful motivator in campaigns. As Trump seems content to focus on his opponent (Trump used Biden's name 40 times during his 70-minute speech. Last week, Biden didn't use Trump's name once.) rather than his policy accomplishments, the campaign’s tone will be stark in the battleground states where key voter groups will decide who gets the state’s prized electoral votes.
Poll after poll and conversations with voters in these states show that Americans are unhappy with where the country is right now and how Trump has handled his first term.
The choices in 2020 are as diverse as likely any in our country. Between now and Election Day, can the Trump campaign change the focus from firing Trump to fearing Biden and Harris?
All campaigns have the rhyme and rhythm of a performance for the voters.
Randy Dwyer: In many ways Trump’s acceptance speech was structured like a three-act play and was very similar to every candidate who is asking voters to return him/her to another term in office. The first act is a litany of accomplishments. This included domestic and foreign achievements such as standing up to Iran, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, strengthening the military, restructuring funding for NATO and brokering an unpresented peace deal between UAE and Israel. Domestic achievements were under the umbrella of “Made in America” and focused on signing USMCA, tearing up the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a humming economy with low unemployment.
In the second act, Trump turned his attention to Biden, painting him as a do-nothing legislator after nearly 50 years in office. He called Biden a “Trojan horse” for the radical left, with the intent of swaying voters who might be fearful of social unrest.
The third and final act was Trump’s vision of what another term in office would bring America: a country cured of “the plague,” an end to unending wars overseas, and a return to a strong economy that benefits everyone. This scenario had a caveat: the only person who could bring this vision to reality is Trump.
If we put this speech and the Trump campaign in the context of a play, what remains to be seen is how many tickets will be sold at the box office; that is to say, how many voters will choose Trump? Only then will we know if the play runs for another four years.
Mike Sistak: In keeping with the theme of a stage play, I’d describe President Trump’s speech as on-script, touching on many of the themes presented throughout the convention.
The question for me is whether the audience, as in the television viewers, had seen the play before and were returning for a repeat performance, or was this a new audience drawn to a headline performer?
A further note on the audience: both conventions were way down in viewership compared to previous years. The third night of the Republican convention, when Vice President Pence gave his speech, drew in just 10.5 million viewers.
We don’t yet know what the television ratings were for the final night of the Republican convention, but it’s unlikely Trump’s speech did anything to sway undecided voters because most viewers likely fell into one of two categories: his fans or his most ardent critics. I think most box office sales (getting back to the stage play metaphor) are going to come in the following weeks as the election intensifies with a deluge of paid media, grassroots politicking (however unconventional during a pandemic) and in the debates.
Cody Lyon: With both conventions behind us, the campaigns will be running at the highest of levels for the next 66 days. In that time, there are planned debates, multiple campaign events each day and campaign messages that will be delivered through our TVs, social media channels and other avenues.
Two things are certain: both Trump and Biden believe that the 2020 election is the most important in the history of the country and, despite the scripting and high drama, the 2020 presidential election is not a play.
The Democratic National Convention
Cody Lyon: The final night of a first-ever virtual political convention ended with Joe Biden accepting the Democratic nomination for President in a speech that focused on the response to the Coronavirus and its resulting impacts. It’s clear that the campaign believes the election will center on the coronavirus response and how a Biden presidency will correct the course of the virus, helping ease the economic devastation and death it has caused.
The speech, as is typical of nominee speeches, was a contrast between visions, offering direction for what the next four years will hold and a guide on how to achieve it. As expected, the speech was long on themes and short on policy specifics. Still, Biden certainly met the standard of a candidate for President with his plan of leading the nation through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.
Instead of a convention center with cheering supporters and balloons, Biden’s virtually delivered speech needed to reflect the reverence and solemnity of the moment, but also deliver the hope of better days. In this sense, I believe he was on point.
Mike Sistak: In my view, the final night of the convention achieved three things – making the final pitch for the decency of Biden, presenting a united Democratic Party and transitioning to a General Election message that makes a grab for the middle electorate. First, while most campaigns rely on the candidate’s family to humanize them (which we saw plenty of this week), the most powerful message came from someone who isn’t even old enough to vote. A young man by the name of Brayden talked about his stutter, and how Joe Biden, a stutterer himself, personally helped Brayden take steps to overcome this challenge. This message was the perfect coda to Biden wanting the country to know that he will be a president with a deep well of empathy and understanding in a time when many Americans feel the country is short on it.
Second, we saw a video clip of several of Biden’s former competitors in the primary talking about their personal relationship with him and why they support him. Usually a national convention features the also-rans, but they’re always using a speaking slot to press their agenda, finishing with a quick praise for the nominee. But this video, showing his onetime rivals laughing and enjoying their time speaking about Biden, emphasized just how much Democratic Party leaders are singularly focused in their mission to unseat President Trump. It could go a long way toward keeping the various factions of the party united through Election Day, despite policy differences.
Finally, Biden has long been thought of as the kind of candidate who could appeal to a broad American electorate. He seized on that theme within the first few minutes of his acceptance speech. He emphasized that, “while I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn't support me as I will for those who did. That's the job of a president. To represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.” This was a strong signal to Obama-Trump voters, independents and disaffected Republicans that he intends to earn their votes and presents a stark contrast to an incumbent president who vehemently attacks his detractors.
Randy Dwyer: On the final night, Biden accepted the nomination and showed himself to be what the previous three nights and multitude of speakers said he is – a decent man with values. With TV viewership down – approximately 25% for the first evening compared to the 2016 convention – it’s now time for the Biden-Harris team to take their message on the road and keep their momentum moving forward. Their polling numbers remain favorable and they’ll be careful not to misstep. While the COVID bunker strategy worked extremely well up to this point, the convention creates a sprint to the finish line. This sprint may not be a straight line. With four debates ahead -- three presidential and one vice presidential -- the voters will be watching. Superior performances by either candidate could spell the difference on Election Day.
Cody Lyon: The virtual convention showcased the broad diversity of the Democratic Party and the enthusiasm to elect Biden. Still, there is obviously an uneasy truce between the Democratic Party’s progressives and centrists. The differences between the two factions (and subgroups) will not be resolved after this convention, nor by Election Day.
Between now and then – the political lifetime of 74 days – the focus is on electing Biden. We will watch and see whether Democrats have made a successful case to the country that he deserves to be elected President of the United States.