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Experts: GOP convention speakers stroke Trump's base, but miss more direct appeal to Michigan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

As Republicans launched Tuesday into the second night of their national convention, the party focused on individuals afforded opportunities under President Donald Trump that they argued would have otherwise been unavailable. 

But the pattern emerging from the convention speeches and the prior night's keynote addresses and videos was the same, experts say: An enthusiastic appeal to Trump's loyal base balanced with a more moderated approach to undecided voters. There also has been a noticeable lack of Michigan elected officials or candidates on stage even through Trump had his slimmest margin of victory in the state.

More than a dozen speakers addressed viewers from across the country Monday and a similar number were expected to do the same Tuesday, as "Americans from all walks of life" described how Trump had delivered on the American promise of a "land of opportunity."

The Republican National Convention Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, featured several individuals who said they were helped by Trump's policies, including, from left, lobsterman Jason Joyce, businessman John Peterson, dairy farmer Cris Peterson and former felon and activist Jon Ponder.

Among the speakers Tuesday were Maine lobsterman Jason Joyce, dairy farmer Cris Peterson, businessman John Peterson and former felon and activist Jon Ponder. The party also made an appeal to women, showcasing the different females working on Trump's campaign and in his administration. 

Ponder, who now advocates for constructive relationships between police and felons, was granted a pardon by Trump in a filmed segment aired during the convention.

Cris Peterson praised the president’s economic policies and rescues during the pandemic while John Peterson touted tax cuts for small businesses and more advantageous trade agreements under Trump’s administration. 

Joyce criticized the Obama-Biden administration’s environmental policies that prohibited certain areas for fisherman. The Maine lobsterman didn’t vote for Trump, but argued that the president reversed Obama’s decision and respected fishermen’s perspectives.

“As long as Trump is president, fishing families like mine will have a voice,” Joyce said. 

Anti-abortion activist and former Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson praised Trump’s record on anti-abortion policy, while March for Life participant Nicholas Sandmann criticized the media’s portrayal of his encounter with a Native-American protester at the Lincoln Memorial. 

“I’m proud to say that throughout my media nightmare I have had President Trump’s unwavering support,” Sandmann said. “And I know you’ll agree with me when I say no one in this county has been a victim of unfair media coverage more than President Donald Trump.”

The speakers combined with the contingent of Black or minority Republican speakers Monday are a clear effort to chip away at the perception and, in some cases, the reality that the GOP is driven overwhelmingly by white men, said Bill Ballenger, a former state legislator and longtime political observer.

"I think the Republican Party has been inept over the years in trying to combat this perception," Ballenger said. "I think last night was a start. They should have started this 20 years ago.”

The message was supported in the appeals made to Trump's base and undecided voters. 

Kimberly Guilfoyle speaks as she tapes her speech for the first day of the Republican National Convention.

At the start of the convention, Republicans used speakers such as Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle to rally Trump's base, while former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott made overtures to undecided voters, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. 

The speakers and the prominence of their addresses also were a nod to the potential future of the party, he said. 

"No matter what happens in this election, it was kind of a preview of several of the rising stars in the party," Kall said. 

With Scott, Haley, U.S. House candidate Kim Klacik of Baltimore and former pro football player Herschel Walker, the Republican Party also battled the conception that it lacks diversity, said David Dulio, a political science professor and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University. 

Republicans won't win a majority of minority voters, Dulio said, "“but if they can get a few more than 2016, that’s a win.”

The task through the rest of the convention, Dulio said, is "wash, rinse, repeat from night one. Engage the base and try to pick off some persuadables.”

But the Republican Party, in its push to remind voters of violence and protests in Democratic-run cities, is building on a shaky foundation considering Trump has been in charge for four years, Kall said.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during the Republican National Convention from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

"A lot of the warnings are about things that are occurring in present today while he is president," the UM debate expert said. 

The Republican convention's first night was a startling contrast to last week's Democratic National Convention for many Democrats and left-leaning pundits. 

"It's very clear that their strategy is to continue Trump’s brand of politics, which is purely fear," said Jen Eyer, a partner and political consultant at Lansing-based progressive Vanguard Affairs. 

The loud, theatrical address of Guilfoyle, a former Fox News commentator, stood out most to Eyer as "practically apocalyptic." She doubted undecided voters got past the performance and accepted the more moderate addresses of Haley and Scott. 

"This isn’t going to sway them," Eyer said of undecided voters. "If they continue with this, this very red meat speak-to-the-base convention, they’re certainly not going to be changing anybody’s minds.”

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James speaks during the Republican National Convention in a recorded message shown Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

Kall and Dulio noted the GOP may have missed an opportunity by relegating U.S. Senate candidate John James, an African-American businessman from Farmington Hills and Iraq War veteran, to a Monday slot before the convention's nationwide broadcast. 

Not only would a James' victory over Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township be a boon for Michigan, but it also would add credence to the Republicans' argument that they are diverse. 

"That’s a different approach than the Democrats," Dulio said. "They paid a lot of attention to people in Michigan. I’m sure that’s a reaction to the loss here four years ago.”

There's competition for stage time between Michigan and the 49 other states where Trump is seeking a win, Ballenger said. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel is from Michigan, but elected officeholders and candidates were absent.

The lack of Michigan representation was noticeable since the president won the state by 10,704 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton. 

"Whatever the challenge, the Democrats did a very good job in the way they organized their convention and presented their speakers in maximizing Michigan political figures," he said.