TIM ALBERTA: I want to first go around and ask everyone—as a viewer, as a voter—was there one moment from either of the conventions that really stuck with you while watching at home? Beth, let’s start with you.
BETH HANSEN: The moment that struck me, honestly, was as I was watching the preparations for Trump’s remarks and I was looking at the South Lawn and I saw the chairs. I was stunned to see how close they were together. I’m just telling you as somebody who’s sitting in Columbus, Ohio, in the Midwest, stunned to see how close they were together. You would not be allowed to do that in a restaurant in our state. So, I was very surprised that they were going to put that many people on the lawn when we’re having the challenges that we are right now with public health. And for the Democratic Convention, of course, my favorite was on Monday night, when Governor Kasich had an opportunity to talk about what his thoughts were about the election this fall and the two paths that our country faces and the path that he thinks is going to bring us back to civility and our ability to work together.
TERRY SULLIVAN: It makes sense because, I mean, no one—really no other person has done more to make sure that Donald Trump was president, so I could understand why Kasich wants to weigh in on this election.
ALBERTA: Terry, I had a feeling you might work that into your response. Explain what you mean by that. I’m sure Beth would like to know.
SULLIVAN: Well, I think there are a lot of people that believe that John Kasich served as quite the spoiler in the 2016 nominating process. Virginia was a state that Marco lost to Trump by 20,000 votes; Kasich was still in the race and got 80,000. Jeff understands the mechanics of Texas congressional district delegates being awarded; Kasich staying in the race gave about 70-plus delegates extra to Trump just in Texas alone on that primary. So, he served as a spoiler who didn’t really walk away from Super Tuesday with hardly anything in the way of delegates. He didn’t win anywhere but was able to rob a lot of people and give a lot of those delegates to Trump.
JEFF ROE: And he told us 10 minutes before we conceded that he was going all the way to Cleveland and got out 12 hours later. I thought he was going to be secretary of State for that.
SULLIVAN: I mean, that’s the only question, is why did he not get a Cabinet position? He deserved it.
HANSEN: Respectfully, I think there are any number of people who are participating in this call who would have thought that perhaps there were other candidates who should have gotten out. And I respect your opinion, I respect the math, I respect what you think we did. We did what we thought was right and continue to believe that what we did was right.
ALBERTA: Now that Terry got that out of his system, let’s move on. Danny, what was the most impactful convention moment for you?
DANNY DIAZ: Tim Scott and listening to him speak and his story. We’re all familiar with the senator, but there are millions of Americans who are not. And he’s compelling, he’s genuine, and really represents, I think, a lot of the strengths of the GOP.
ALBERTA: Jeff, what about you? Was there a breakthrough moment?
ROE: I don’t know if it was a breakthrough. I cried twice, once each for each convention. Never thought I’d cry during a national convention, but having kids, you know, it turns your life upside down. Brayden Harrington at the Democratic convention—I mean, I don’t know how you could watch that and not, like, nearly fall apart. I had to look away from my wife, so I could maintain my strength. (Laughter.) And then Ann Dorn at the Republican convention, I was somewhat familiar with that situation. I think both of those pieces probably got to what each convention was about, kind of spoke to the overriding narrative in both conventions. I thought Brayden was fabulous. I mean, it couldn’t have been a smarter, better-done idea. And secondly, the Ann Dorn situation, which a lot of people in Missouri—I’m from Missouri—a lot of people knew the situation, knew that it happened, but in the 24-hour news cycle, it just moves on. And just to hear the pain in her voice, I don’t know. I think it was moving from both sides, and I think it underscored the message that each one of these conventions were intending to portray.
ALBERTA: Terry, I want you to weigh in, and then let’s spin it forward. Was there a convention moment that really struck you?
SULLIVAN: Danny stole mine. Tim Scott was phenomenal because he was able to tell his story without upstaging anyone. A convention is about a candidate, the nominee. And he was able to tell his story and why people should support the Republican Party and Donald Trump without upstaging him. I also think that Donald Trump’s speech, from what I saw of it, was perhaps the single most effective speech of the convention because it did what it needed to. And the only path for Donald Trump to win this thing is to make this a choice between him and Joe Biden. I thought he did that. And Trump rose to the occasion and does what he does best, which is communicate a tough message about his opponents.
ALBERTA: Jeff, let’s talk about the messaging. Prior to the convention, the Trump campaign was heavily invested in the idea that Biden is slow, that he’s not as sharp as he used to be. But you didn’t hear any of that during the convention. The modified line of attack was much more focused on him being held captive to the left wing of his party. What is the Republican message against Biden?
ROE: The cognitive hit on Biden—look, there’s a 3 in 10 chance that he ends his own campaign along the way, so, that stuff is better left unsaid. Because every time you do that, you do what they did to George W. Bush, which is lower the bar, lower bar, lower the bar, and essentially if you walk and chew gum now you’ve cleared the bar and the issue is off the table. I think the overarching message for us is kind of this married message of Goldwater—“In your heart, you know he’s right”—and Reagan—“Let’s make America great again”—which is now Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The Democrats literally had no message. It was Hillary’s “stronger together” marries Marianne Williamson “love trumps hate.” It was all personality.
DIAZ: I think the Dems did what they intended to do, whether that is like smart, strategically. They did what they intended to do. And to me, it projects where they think they are in the race.
ALBERTA: Did what they needed to do, in what sense?
DIAZ: Just showing from their perspective the distinction, which they believe is a substantial one, between them and the president with respect to the management of the crisis and showing empathy for fellow Americans. I mean, clearly that’s what they were trying to forecast throughout their convention. And you know, competence and everything else that comes with it with respect to governance. I think they sought to achieve that and they sought to show that the president really doesn’t care about people, particularly people of color. That’s what they were going for. And that’s where they are in the race.
ROE: For being in a strong position in the race, it was really poorly thought out. I think you’re right. I think they did exactly what they wanted to do. I just think it’s a huge missed opportunity and a huge mistake.
ALBERTA: Beth, the American president is both the head of government and the head of state, and Democrats have been attacking both his performance as head of government and his performance as head of state. From your vantage point, which do you think is more effective in moving votes? Do you think it’s the appeal to character—that he doesn’t have empathy, he’s not wearing a mask, etc? Or is it that he’s incompetent and he’s botched this whole thing?
HANSEN: They needed the character message to speak to their voters. What I heard coming out of that convention was civility, coming together again, we are being torn apart. It was a more emotional message. But as they move forward and they have to attract people—and this is where I agree with Jeff that it was a lost opportunity—they have to be for something. They can’t just be for an amorphous, “Things are going terrible, and don’t worry, once I get there, they’re going to be better.” And I’m certain that they would feel like they have articulated some of those things, but it’s got to be sharp and it’s got to be clear. And people, the few that are out there that have not made up their mind, they need to know how the government is going to be better under Biden-Harris.
SULLIVAN: Look, if this race is about Donald Trump, I think Trump loses. If this race is about the policy differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Donald Trump has a real shot to win this thing. I think as long as the Democrats don’t step on their own two feet, they’re where they need to be. They just need to run this clock out and keep this race being about Donald Trump.
ROE: I think their main attack is the same as it was in 2016. Their main prebuttal to our convention was the same as 2016. The main bracketing that they did this time was the same as 2016. And I have the same feeling that it doesn’t work. You either go after candidates on their character or their policies. And character, like Danny said, you’re going to get one undecided voter out of 100 on the issue of his character. What they could have ran the entire convention on is that he wanted to cut everybody’s Social Security, or that he wanted to kick everybody off health care. I mean, you can pick several things that would have some modicum of truth behind it and they could run $10 million worth of media through it. But they didn’t. They went after character. Like, they can’t get over it that people might not care as much about what his personal character is, they care about what he gets done and the economic conditions they’re in. And I think it’s a huge mistake. I don’t think they can ever say what they’re for because their party is so split on what they’re for.
DIAZ: Right. They’re paralyzed by their constituency, so they couldn’t talk about the issues. I think they’re in a tough position from that perspective.
ROE: They didn’t focus in on any policy except for the pandemic, which, by the way, the numbers are moving on the pandemic. That is a big bet to make, as well. I mean, we could either have the flu come in October and it be a complete shit show. But just as likely, like we’ve seen in some states, people could be thinking the worst is behind us. Democrats bet their whole convention 70 days out on the pandemic and Trump’s management of it.
ALBERTA: The first time this group convened, in the summer of 2019, the consensus was that if there was a vice presidential nominee who could check the most boxes in the Democratic Party it was going to be Kamala Harris. Sure enough, Biden put her on the ticket. I’m wondering two things. First, what your real-time reaction to the news of her selection? And second, I have not heard any consistent line of attack against Kamala Harris from Republicans. Can Republicans find a message to use against her?
SULLIVAN: I reacted by saying, “Oh, good. They finally did what we knew they were going to do all along. The suspense is over.” Look, she’s turned out to be a good pick because she has done no harm to their ticket. She was the most well-vetted out of any of those options and that’s paid off for them. You know, I’m a contributor with CBS. Shortly after the pick, I had to do CBS This Morning and I wanted to hear what the Trump’s campaign would say about her, so I texted some pretty well-positioned people who responded, “Yeah, I’ll get you something.” I never got talking points on how to define Kamala Harris. I still haven’t gotten talking points on how to define Kamala Harris. So, part of it is that she’s a good pick. The other part of it is, like, how the heck were Republicans not prepared for a Kamala Harris pick?
ALBERTA: Jeff, if you’re running the Trump campaign, how are you making the case against Kamala Harris? And answer the first part: What was your initial reaction to seeing her pick?
ROE: I was disappointed because she’s the best one. Biden has a real problem that he’s got to fix. If you look at him since he’s been the only candidate in the race, about March 15 or 16, if you take a look at the primary performances that he’s had since, his performance in every state is about 73 to 77 percent. I mean, that’s a little bit lower than you’d want, it’s not bad. But in the cities of those states, he’s run nine points behind the statewide average. In Chicago, in Milwaukee, in Pittsburgh, in Atlanta. Providence, Rhode Island, for example, 45 percent nonwhite, he gets 57 percent of the vote on June 9. In Atlanta, he runs 5 points behind Georgia. So, he has an African American, Hispanic problem. Trump is running 5 points ahead with Blacks, where he was against Hillary Clinton; he’s running 6 points ahead with Hispanics where he was with Clinton. So, it was a “captain obvious” choice, and we’ve done a poor job defining her. If I was defining her, she’s the number one most liberal senator in the United States. Their convention was completely centrist, all about how many Republicans support Biden. So, I would label her a liberal. I would drive a wedge. Their platform is one of the most liberal documents you can ever read, and we should make sure they eat that whole sandwich.
DIAZ: There was kind of an Elizabeth [Warren] vs. Kamala situation, I thought, and when the social unrest started to unfold it was kind of a fait accompli from my perspective. And to the point concerning their issue with minority voters and needing to ratchet up that number, it’s no coincidence that we had so many minorities at our convention. Look, Trump’s had a problem defining Kamala since the primary. He’s always had a problem getting a frame on her, to be very candid with you. Identity politics is strong on their side. We’ve said it over and over again. She checks a lot of boxes in that regard. And with respect to the rollout of her nomination, I mean, Dems start at the 50-yard line on any of this stuff. The media doesn’t hold their feet to the fire. So, am I surprised that they had a good rollout? No. I’d be surprised if they didn’t.
HANSEN: I think a woman of color is an excellent choice for them. To the question about Trump’s inability to get a bead on her, I think part of this goes to her service as a prosecutor and as an attorney general. I think that leaves an impression in people’s mind that she’s law-and-order conservative. I think it’s difficult for people to be convinced that she’s Elizabeth Warren because they don’t think she is. They just think that she’s probably a fairly conservative Democrat. Because, “look, she’s law and order.” I think for most people—and we are not most people—but as I look around, my kids are fairly progressive and they told me they had trouble with Kamala Harris because she was in favor of three-strikes laws, how they picked on minorities and over-represented in the prosecutions. I mean, that is a perspective on Kamala Harris that makes it more difficult to do what Jeff suggests, which is paint her as a liberal, which I’m confident that she has espoused lots of positions that would place her in that category.
ALBERTA: Let’s talk about Kamala Harris in the context of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. I’m curious how you guys view this. Is it possible that whatever deficit Democrats put themselves at with the progressive left because of her background as a “tough on crime” prosecutor; that maybe it’s offset with appeal to voters in the middle who, in the midst of all this social unrest, hear what Republicans say about Democrats being soft on crime but look at the Democratic vice presidential nominee and see somebody who has this record as a law-and-order prosecutor?
HANSEN: They need to start that right now. They need to start reassuring people that they have the ability to separate peaceful protest from people who are just doing something wrong. They need a better message on it. And if Kamala Harris is the answer, that’s what they have to message on.
DIAZ: I wish them good luck, but they’re not able to do it. They’re not able to do it with their constituency.
ROE: There’s no Republicans looting Macy’s. They can’t do it. They can’t take a position on it. They cannot.
SULLIVAN: I don’t know if you guys saw the Papa John’s store employee when the rioters in Kenosha smashed the front window and he comes out and starts screaming at them, “Do you want to get Trump reelected?” Look, there’s nothing happening better for Donald Trump than those over-the-top viral moments where people are screaming at diners and demanding they raise their fists in the air. Like, it is nearly impossible to feel sympathetic for Rand Paul. You know? Who amongst us can’t empathize with his neighbor who beat his ass? [Laughter.] But when you see all these protesters surrounding him and his wife, it feels like everything has gone haywire. And that hurts Biden more than anything else.
ALBERTA: When I hear what you guys are saying, I think to myself, “What’s the point of having a black woman who is a former prosecutor on the ticket if you can’t use her at a moment like this to deliver that message that Beth was just describing?”
SULLIVAN: She and Joe Biden need to get on a plane, leave his basement, and go to Kenosha. And they need to say—like arm and arm and say, “This needs to stop.” And with his family. Meet with his family who is asking for the violence to stop. [Editor’s Note: Biden did just this, days after our conversation.] They need a Sister Souljah moment. I mean, it’s so obvious and I don’t know why they don’t do it. I know that, to Jeff’s point, it’s all about the base and that would piss off the base. But I think, like, even the base wants to beat Trump more than they want a riot. You know?
ALBERTA: Can Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have it both ways here? Can they soothe the anxieties of voters in the middle who are fed up with Trump but kind of think that he might keep them safe—and appease a very angry, very frustrated, very fed up progressive base of the party?
DIAZ: I find it very hard to believe that they can. I mean, in my home state, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, they’re trying to make it a misdemeanor for assaulting a cop. I just believe that there are a lot of voters in these states—let’s talk Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—I think the position that they are firmly anchored in because of their party and their base makes it really, really hard for them to do it. And it is a huge gift to Trump.
ROE: Think about where we are. Four things are happening this year that have never happened in the history of our country in the same year. One, there’s a pandemic. Two, the economic crisis. Three, social and racial unrest. Four, an election. Any of our candidates—if our guys were president, we would be in a much bigger trough than Trump is in. Any Democrat would be in a much bigger trough. Anybody else, with the polling showing 17 to 67 in right direction/wrong track numbers, it would be a hole they couldn’t dig out of. And this guy is within the margin of error in half of the six states where he needs to win, despite all this stuff going on.
SULLIVAN: His floor is so high and his ceiling is so low that, like, nothing matters. He’s right. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and there is 42 percent of the population that would be like, “What did the guy do to him?”
ALBERTA: We’ve seen recent polling to suggest that the social unrest is now registering with voters as a real priority, a real concern. Is this now Trump’s best chance to crawl out of the terrible set of circumstances Jeff was just describing? Does this social unrest represent Trump’s best chance to get reelected?
DIAZ: Well, it’s 60-some days out and a lot can change, but it’s incredibly helpful to him at this juncture. Because it plays to nationalism. It plays to strength. And it plays to the contrast that he wants to drive. I think in these states that they need to win, these states in the upper Midwest and in the Rust Belt, I think it does give him a great advantage with some of these voters. I mean, my God, the guy is like performing in these swing states better than he was against Hillary Clinton at this stage. So, from my standpoint, when you consider that folks failed to tell pollsters the truth, they weren’t properly sampled in these surveys, I think it’s closer than people think it is, and I think this certainly plays to his strength.
HANSEN: I agree with everything that Danny said. But we have got a long way to go. And structurally, things are so bad. We don’t actually have a vaccine. We don’t actually have reliable tests. We don’t have reliable treatment. I mean, things are not good. But he is doing well in part in this moment because people who live in these suburban areas, who maybe have thought, “Gosh, he’s too crazy and I don’t like what he says about women and minorities and immigrants. …” But they want to be safe. They want to feel like their families are safe. And this, somehow, was like a present that landed on his porch; that he looks down and he has an opportunity just to continue saying and doing divisive things—and it plays to where he wants to be. The Democrats have got to find a way to talk about how they’re going to keep families safe, how they’re going to keep communities safe. They are going to lose these places that they need to win if they cannot find that answer.