The RNC's complicated case vs. the DNC's simple argument
Republicans are competing with a Democratic case that fits more easily on a bumper sticker
Donald Trump is not exactly known for nuance, but one day into the Republican National Convention and after the entirety of its Democratic counterpart, one thing is clear.
The Democrats are making a simple, straightforward argument and Republicans are attempting a more complicated one. Sometimes simpler arguments are such because they are simplistic and, therefore, wrong. Sometimes arguments become complicated because they are too logically convoluted and contorted to be right. But all other things being equal, the party making the simple argument has a political advantage.
The Democrats' argument is that much of what is going on in the country is terrible and it is President Trump's fault as the incumbent. The solution is therefore to elect a different president, no questions asked. As Trump himself asked four years ago, “What the hell do you have to lose?”
While the level of blame that can properly be assigned to Trump and how much of a solution Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will prove to be are both highly debatable questions, the first part of the Democrats' argument is objectively true. From the pandemic to the recession to the fraught relations between law enforcement and communities of color, on full display since the death of George Floyd, national conditions are not good.
In recent reputable polls, the percentage of respondents saying the country is on the wrong track is as high as 74 percent. The RealClearPolitics national polling average pegs the breakdown at 69.2 percent saying the country is moving in the wrong direction versus 25.2 percent saying it's moving in the right one. So on that narrow question, the Democrats are selling the electorate on something they already believe rather than trying to persuade them.
The Republican argument is more complex: We too think the country is substantially on the wrong track, with a recession, endless coronavirus lockdowns that inhibit a recovery, violent protests that are coinciding with a more general increase in violent crime in some large cities, woke capitalism, politically correct “cancel culture” run amuck, and a whole host of other problems that the Democrats threaten to make worse.
We think what happened to George Floyd is terrible and requires some form of policy solution, Republicans continue, pointing to recent criminal justice measures and Sen. Tim Scott's (R-S.C.) recent police reform bill, but we also can't prevent police departments from doing their jobs. We need to manage the coronavirus, but we can't shut down the economy until there's a vaccine and we have to allow for some local variety in mitigation practices.
The argument is further complicated by the fact that some Republicans, occasionally including Trump himself, aren't really directing it against Biden himself. Yes, the former vice president is more liberal than a Republican this side of John Kasich would prefer. But the larger problem is the socialists and radicals his election would almost certainly unleash.
In some cases, Republicans contend Trump isn't getting the credit he's due, especially when compared to real-world examples like New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo as opposed to idealized outcomes that might have occurred if public opinion had been willing to tolerate quarantines several weeks earlier than was actually the case. In others, they are in effect saying that there are things Trump opposes, even if somewhat ineffectually, that Biden will enable or actively support.
The target audience for the Democrats' simple argument is virtually everyone in America who has any serious misgivings about Trump, which could potentially get them in the low-to-mid 50s nationally. They would like to assemble an electoral coalition that stretches all the way from Bernie Sanders, if not Angela Davis, to Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney because they fear that if the election is close, Trump will cheat (and after 2016, they're not entirely confident they won't blow it themselves).
Republicans suspect there are some waverers out there for them too, if only they can use Scott or Nikki Haley to smoothen Trump's rough edges and finally get voters not already firmly in their camp to focus on what kind of things Biden and a potentially filibuster-less Senate would actually do. And if the latest Pew poll showing violent crime entering the top five public concerns for the first time this cycle, not far behind coronavirus, is suggestive of increased anxiety about Chicago, Portland, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, all is not lost.
The case being made by Trump's GOP could be right politically, on the merits, or both. But they are competing with a plausible Democratic case that fits more easily on a bumper sticker.