Editor’s Note: This post was written by Emily Radigan.
Many would characterize this cycle’s GOP primaries as competitive and divisive. This could prove a problem for the GOP, because, generally, when a party is divided, they tend not to win in November. However, the effects of a competitive and divisive primary can be alleviated by a unifying convention, often characterized as a “healing” convention. In a healing convention, the candidate will often see a convention bounce or bump, in the polls. So, the question after the end of the Republican National Convention remains: Is the GOP more unified or divided as a result? The RNC was a suiting end to the GOP primary in its unpredictable nature. As with any political event, there were highlights and lowlights that defined the convention.
Events during the convention contribute to whether or not the convention is a healing one or the party remains divided. The announcement of Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, just prior to the convention, was an attempt at party unity. Trump’s nomination acceptance speech also seemed like a bid at intra-party unity. These developments contributed to the healing nature of the convention. However, there were still some notable signs of discord; anti-Trump delegates attempted to take over the floor to change the rules, there was an absence of many party elites, and Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump. After the week affair is said and done, political scientists often look to post-convention polling to provide some insight into whether the convention was ultimately unifying and what to expect in November.
The convention bump is a rise in the polls for the candidate after their party’s convention. Political scientists hypothesize that the convention bump occurs under several circumstances. A convention can be used to heal internal party divisions that manifested during the primary. This is often helped when party elites show unity at the convention and allow disaffected voters to feel okay about returning to the party fold. Conventions are also theorized to help the bandwagon effect, increasing support for the nominee once they are officially vested as the standard bearer for the party. This allows the mainly indifferent or indecisive partisans during the primary to rally behind the chosen candidate. Additionally, conventions provide an outlet for mass media attention, with news outlets almost constantly reporting on the convention during that week. This allows the party to project a positive appearance, which can increase support for the nominee for those who are in between the two nominees of the party.
While most nominees of major political parties have received convention bounces in modern history, it is not guaranteed. A convention filled with unrest and general displeasure, such as the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, may not net a convention bounce. Generally, conventions that are more unifying allow for a larger convention bump because it brings more supporters into the fold and behind a candidate. Traditionally, the first party, the out party, to hold its convention receives a larger convention bounce than the other party. These bounces continue into the fall election season, having a not insignificant effect on the general election as a whole.
The announcement of Governor Mike Pence of Indiana as VP pick certainly helped party unity. Pence is a staunch conservative with governing and legislative experience; these traits only help Trump. Many Republicans have previously questioned whether Trump is really a conservative, as well as his non-existent experience in government. Pence adds credibility to Trump’s campaign and helps assuage the doubts of some of the more traditional Republican base. While Pence is unlikely to provide much of a home state advantage, as Indiana traditionally votes red anyway, he makes up for many of Trump’s shortcomings as the GOP standard bearer. He is a serious, experienced, Republican. He also supports the tea party movement, many of whom are wary and critical of Trump. Trump picking Pence as VP is a plea for party unity and a sign to take Trump’s campaign seriously.
Trump’s acceptance speech was an attempt at party unity. He painted a picture of what (he claimed) America’s future would look like if his values and ideas did not take place. He claimed to be the voice of the people. His speech went over well with those at the convention as well as political pundits. In a campaign that has heavily focused on Trump and what he can do, this speech also brokered an attempt at unity and how Trump can help the common people. In the last parts of his speech, he focused heavily on trade, a hot topic in this election. His denunciation of the TPP was especially popular, having appeal to the Republican party, to independents, and even to some Democrats.
Despite these moments that called for unity, there were some obvious signs that many members of the party are still not completely on board with Trump. On the first day of the convention, unhappy and frustrated delegates attempted to commandeer the floor for a roll call vote via petition, that would put the previously established rules up to vote. The delegates sought to change the rules, and “unbound” delegates; this would allow delegates to vote for whoever they like, regardless of the results of their states’ nomination contests. The motion received significant support, with delegates from eleven states initially signing on. However, many delegates later rescinded their signatures from the petition, after pressure from RNC representatives. This caused quite a commotion on the floor and in the news. Though failed, this attempt allowed delegates to communicate that they were not satisfied with Trump’s nomination.
Additionally, there was an overall absence of GOP elites that indicated that the Republican party is not in complete harmony. Notably absent were the Bush family, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, as well as many other elected officials that were not required to be there. In past conventions, former presidents and high profile party elites would attend in a show of unity behind the chosen candidate. These absences suggest that many of these politicians are not completely comfortable with Trump as the nominee, as exemplified in Ted Cruz’s speech. Cruz made a speech which many assumed would be an endorsement, but he ultimately told the RNC and viewers to “vote their conscience.” This specific refusal to endorse Trump shows that there are still alive and thriving “never Trump” segments of the Republican party.
National polls, more than a week after the RNC, are still mixed as to whether Trump really received a convention bump. Some claim that Trump received no net gain in the polls, while others, including the nominee himself, boast a bounce of five to six points. As Nate Silver points out, it is likely that neither of these outcomes is entirely true and Trump did receive a bump, albeit more in the range of one to three points. However, since Trump was rising in the polls even before the RNC, gaining on average three points in national polls, this has allowed him to tie or even lead Clinton in some polls.
Even with this convention bounce, it is not entirely clear whether the Republican party remains more united as a result. National polls suggest unification occurred, with the selection of Pence as VP, and an acceptance speech with potential for broad appeal to the Republican base and other segments helping Trump’s case. However, as noted, there are still several very vocal factions that find Trump’s nomination unacceptable. With Trump’s rise in the polls and a large portion of the GOP seemingly accepting Trump’s nomination, this convention was more healing and unifying than not. Although, it does appear that it had the potential to be even more so, had the displays of unrest and division not occurred. Overall, the RNC proved that Trump is a serious contender with a decent chance at being the next President of the United States.