It’s foolish, clearly, to try to predict how Donald Trump’s actions will affect his standing with voters. He has been disproving the pundits on that front for a year now. He may have been exaggerating only slightly when he said at a January campaign rally, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Still, he could lose voters Thursday night, or at the very least fail to attract many more. With tens of millions of Americans tuning in for his acceptance speech, it is his single ripest moment to give his campaign momentum heading into the fall stretch.
Here are five things Trump can do to fly out of Cleveland on a high note. If he fails on several of these, he’ll be digging himself a hole.
1. Most importantly, he needs to thread the needle of seeming presidential while maintaining his maverick status.
Trump is unconventional, and he shouldn’t try to shed that look now. At the same time, many Americans in the middle are uncomfortable putting someone so brash and insulting into the White House. He must show that he has depth.
“He has to prove he has the judgment to be president,” said N.C. Republican strategist Carter Wrenn. “The perception swing voters have of Trump is that he’s sort of mean and bullyish. … I don’t want traditional, because outsider is important. I want judgment.”
2. Trump needs to reach out to a broader constituency without losing his core of angry white males. His anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, misogynistic rhetoric has worked for him so far, but he’ll need to attract all kinds of voters to beat Hillary Clinton.
He can do that, says center-right N.C. political consultant John Davis, by tapping into voters’ sense that the system is stacked against them – a premise that cuts across many demographic lines. Davis thinks he knows why evangelical Christians and other conservatives backed Trump over a better fit like Ted Cruz:
“It’s all about this sense that the system has been rigged by the privileged to protect their interests,” Davis said, “and too many people have been left outside, neglected, struggling and their only sense of hope is to tear down the system.”
3. Talk policy. Trump has gotten all this way with little policy detail. Swing voters would feel better about him if they believe he has a strong grasp of the issues.
He could, for a few minutes, tackle in granular detail reducing the federal deficit. Just to show he can.
“The task at hand,” said N.C. Republican consultant Paul Shumaker, “is laying out some real policy. Put some meat to the bones.”
4. Attack Hillary if he must, but not so rabidly, and lay out his own vision.
This convention has been more about Clinton than Trump so far, with some attacks going beyond the pale. The dirty work has been done for him. Now he can tap into voters’ hopeful side.
Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer doubts Trump can stop himself.
“I would not underestimate Trump trying to out-Trump everyone else,” Bitzer said. “If Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie or Mike Pence has elevated the fever of the convention delegates, he’s going to want to ratchet it up one more.”
5. Come across as a “uniter” despite the rhetoric of the past year.
The more likable, upbeat, optimistic candidate almost always wins. Some will dismiss any effort by Trump on this front, but many swing voters will still appreciate the notion.
Trump, says Shumaker, should say: “The greatness of America comes from its people, not its government, and the only way to restore that greatness is realizing our differences, realizing the things we have in common and realizing we have to find common ground for the greater good.”
Hey, it could happen.