This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
Republicans are starting their convention tonight facing the same challenges that the Democrats largely navigated during theirs last week, running teleprompters from afar, choreographing dozens of live-shots remotely and stitching together a narrative with often-competing ideological instincts. But they have an additional challenge: theirs is the party in control of the White House and President Donald Trump has consistently drawn poor marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans will still plan on gathering in Charlotte, N.C., for a four-day celebration of All Things Trump. The backdrop is a nation that saw civilian unemployment spike from 3.5% in February to 14.7% in just two miserable months. At its worst (so far), 23 million Americans were counted as unemployed. It’s tough to campaign for a second term when the economy remains in tatters.
And yet we are about to watch Republicans try.
The details about what would be taking place in real-time and what would be pre-taped were still coming together on Monday afternoon, as were discussions about how, exactly, you have a political convention from afar but also in-person. Most of the line-up is in promotion of the President and his re-nomination, and little is focused on building the GOP brand.
Trump has been personally overseeing many of the preparations, which came together hastily after Trump said in late July that he would abandon Charlotte for Jacksonville, Fla., only to reverse course when Jacksonville told him that he would have to follow pandemic-informed restrictions on massive gatherings. Organizers and strategists have been trying to figure out how to sell Trump to weary Americans ready for their kids to go back to school, their spouses to go back to offices and their grocery stores to stop feeling like battlefields.
There are a couple spots of sunshine for Team Trump, according to public-opinion polling. Trump has a greater hold on his supporters at this moment than four years ago, according to surveys. In the latest Washington Post/ ABC News poll, 73% of Trump backers say they are with him based on the quality of Trump’s candidacy, and not out of worries about Biden. That’s a major turn-around from four years ago, when concerns about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy provided 56% of Trump’s support in August of 2016. Only 40% of Trump’s backers in that survey said that they were with him based on, well, him.
Nor is the economic implosion necessarily a drag on the President, polling shows. Only 68% in The Post/ ABC poll said the economy was not doing well. When Barack Obama was running for re-election in 2012, 84% said they thought the economy was doing badly, despite the fact that unemployment was 8.1% then, compared to the 10.2% in the latest Labor Department survey. When George W. Bush was at the same point heading into his 2004 re-election, the number of people who said the economy was lousy was 55%. (Unemployment stood at 5.4%.) So it’s entirely possible Trump pays little to zero price for a tanked-but-recovering economy.
Meanwhile the opinions of white voters, who are forecast to account for about 7-in-10 voters come November, seem to have grown less hostile to Trump during his tenure. Four years ago, negative opinions about Trump outpaced positive ones by a 54% to 35% margin. These days, they’re about even, according to the NBC/ Wall Street Journal survey.
That’s not to say Trump’s backers are in the majority. In just one of the 21 Washington Post/ ABC polls has Trump been in a position of having a net job approval. He has never enjoyed a net positive in his personal favorability. And even his truest of believers are starting to tell pollsters they have increasing fears that they or someone they know will contract the coronavirus and that they think it is less under control than ever.
Polls aren’t predictive, and there is still a ton that can upend this election. The pandemic shows no signs of slowing, Trump has shown little discipline and could derail even the most tightly scripted of evenings, and there is no shortage of cash funneling into both campaigns and their outside allies. Foreign interference continues from rivals Russia, China and Iran, according to a bipartisan Senate study released this month.
But if you’re sitting in a Republican conference planning the next two months and change, there’s still reason to think there’s a shot. And if you’re getting ready to watch the show this week, brace yourself for a lot of MAGA, economic sunshine and explicit appeals to white folks.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.