Cruz, as is often the case, pushed confrontation the furthest by refusing to provide the nominee with even a perfunctory endorsement. “The one person most able to unify the party ... not only didn’t endorse but said it’s OK not to vote for him, which is a pretty bold move, and that says to many conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives: It’s OK for you to sit this out, it’s OK for you to vote up and down the ticket and leave that space blank,” Sara Fagen, the former political director in the George W. Bush White House, said at an Atlantic forum Thursday morning.
At the same forum, Mike Murphy, the long-time GOP strategist who directed the super PAC campaign supporting Jeb Bush this time, said Cruz’s gambit left Trump in a “squeeze” between two distinct factions of discontented Republicans.
“There is a voter problem here,” Murphy said. “Trump really needs to get to 95 or 96 percent of Republicans, let alone everybody else … to be competitive. Now he’s in a bit of a dog-whistle squeeze play. On one side you’ve got the regular Republicans—the Jeb Bushes, the George W. Bushes, the Romneys—who in a much more polite way have taken a pass on Trump. Now you have the Christian conservatives who have the most ideological concerns about Trump … getting the dog whistle that it’s OK not to be for Trump.”
The vast enthusiasm gap between those who were already in Trump’s inner circle before the convention, and virtually all other party leaders beyond that, had already emerged as a central theme at the convention long before Cruz’s stunning gambit. One reason may be because these elected officials simply do not know Trump very well. But they have also made only the most limited efforts to disguise the ambivalence they feel about his nomination.
Both Fagen, now a partner at the public affairs firm DDC, and Murphy said at the forum that Trump could use that conspicuous coolness to burnish his outsider credentials. “The idea that the establishment has not embraced him underwrites his normal appeal: I’m the guy who is going to blow up the establishment,” Murphy said.
But the lack of prominent voices validating Trump’s fitness for the White House—at a time when 60 percent of Americans have consistently said in polls they don’t view him as qualified for the presidency—represents a significant opportunity cost for the nominee, notes Michael DuHaime, the former campaign manger for Chris Christie.
The convention is “a week of infomercials that you could possibly have,” DuHaime said at the forum. ”It’s just a missed opportunity to make his numbers better. His favorable numbers are so bad ... This was an opportunity for his numbers to go up a little bit more, I think it was missed. But that could all be wiped out if he kills it tonight [in his acceptance speech].”
By far, the warmest words for Trump have come from his family members and associates from his business and charitable work. Talk radio host Laura Ingraham, a long-time media booster, also roused the crowd for Trump on Wednesday night. The few current elected officials who have delivered enthusiastic speeches were all figures in the Trump camp before the convention: Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott of Florida, and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Newt Gingrich delivered an even more energetic case for Trump and his agenda—but Gingrich last held office 18 years ago.