Why the Republican Convention Is So Mean

Both parties are trying to convince undecided voters that their candidate is the lesser of two evils.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

CLEVELAND—“Lock her up! Lock her up!” Chris Christie nodded his approval as Republican delegates demanded the jailing of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. If the protest was impromptu, it was no accident: The prosecutor-turned-governor of New Jersey had called his Tuesday night speech an “indictment,” ending each section with a leading question: “Guilty or not guilty?”

The delegates—some of whom carried signs and wearing shirts saying “Hillary for Prison”—shouted a full-throated “GUILTY!”

This is an unusually negative convention—a low-blow infomercial focused far more on why Americans should vote against Clinton than why they should vote for Donald Trump. On Tuesday alone, 13 of the 19 speakers delivered addresses that largely assailed Clinton. Her record. Her character. Her scandals. Or, as one delegate scrawled in red ink across an unflattering photo of Clinton, “Her Unworthiness.”

Why is the convention so negative? For the same reasons next weeks’ Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia likely will be an anti-Trump orgy.

  • The 2016 electorate includes an unusually large number of undecided voters.
  • Most of those voters hate both candidates.
  • Both campaigns think their path to victory is to win almost by default—to make their rival the most feared alternative.

In a sad way, the strategy makes sense.

With a variety of methodologies, polls suggest that the percentage of undecided voters is in the neighborhood of 25 percent. A recent survey by USA Today/Suffolk University identified nearly one in five respondents holding a negative view of both Clinton and Trump. When asked to choose between the two, 26 percent chose Trump, 19 percent chose Clinton, and 44 percent were undecided.

Although Trump has a slight edge, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, “the majority are up for grabs as these voters grapple with holding their noses and picking one of them or opting for a third party option. Or staying home, come November."

The dynamic exists in each state. In Michigan, 32 percent of voters called themselves undecided in a poll by the Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group, roughly the share of the vote going to both Clinton and Trump.

The high number can be partly attributed to the firm's decision not to ask which way voters leaned if they were uncomfortable committing firmly. Still, it’s twice the number of uncommitted Michigan voters the firm identified at this point in the 2012 presidential cycle.

“Trump and Clinton are trying to disqualify each other,” said Chris Kofinis of Park Street Strategies, a public relations and research firm based in Washington.

It is delicate work, considering the fact that undecided voters are united mostly by their intense frustration with the political system. Among their numbers are moderate Republican women, mostly white and suburban voters; young liberals who supported Bernie Sanders; and self-identified independents.

Trump can use Clinton’s record of scandal and deception to drive up her negative ratings among moderate women, but if he goes too far, those same voters might turn against him. “Threatening to jail your opponent is mean, and these people don’t like mean,” said the GOP consultant Alex Castellanos.

Accusing Clinton of murder, comparing her to the devil, and dredging up the Monica Lewinsky scandal represents the type and tone of politics that has pushed these voters out of the two major parties and into the “undecided” category. Yet Trump and his surrogates can’t seem to help themselves.

On the Benghazi and email scandals, for instance, there is a credible case to be made against Clinton’s management and honesty. Al Baldasaro didn’t make it. Instead, the New Hampshire state representative and Trump adviser on veterans issues said Wednesday, “The whole thing disgusts me. Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

Clinton faces a similar challenge. Her strategy depends on persuading Americans to vote against Trump because he is temperamentally ill-suited for the job, a liar and a bully who enriched himself by gaming the legal system and taking advantage of other people.

She has a credible case, but Democrats could go too far.

Shouts of “fascist” from the convention floor, for example, would be the Philadelphia analogue of “Lock her up!” Smug dismissals of Trump’s populist approach and policies might be viewed by undecided voters as an indictment of them.

Trump's advisers privately hope that Clinton and her fellow Democrats overreach on the issue of racial division, specifically by yielding the convention stage to black activists whose appearance could be construed as anti-police.

Kofinis believes both candidates, but particularly Clinton, are missing an opportunity to define themselves in a positive way. Time and again, his focus groups of undecided voters show that negative attacks backfire and that aspirational messages are hungrily gobbled up.

“I know that sounds Pollyannaish,” Kofinis told me. “Look, I love negative attacks as much as the next person and I know the power they can have. But in this election, undecided voters are different from the undecided voters of past elections. That calls for different strategies.”

I’d like to think Kofinis is right—that the growing numbers of independent and swing voters stand ready to march behind a positive, aspirational candidate. But his theory won’t be tested by these two particular candidates, both emblems of what political scientists call “negative partisanship”—that’s when voters are motivated not by their love of a cause or candidate, but by their fear of the other side.

With their conventions, Trump and Clinton begin a dreary march to be anointed the least loathsome.