CLEVELAND ― To say that the rollout of Sarah Palin as Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008 didn’t go as planned would be putting it gently. In reality, it was a series of headaches and communications mishaps culminating in near calamity for the Republican Party.
An unknown governor from Alaska, Palin was engulfed by a highly curious, slightly vulturous press corps. Stories popped up about her husband belonging to the Alaska Independence Party. It was revealed that she’d been investigated for an alleged vendetta against the head of the state police. It was revealed that her daughter was unwed and pregnant. The McCain campaign struggled to explain how being the “commander of the National Guard” of Alaska gave her foreign policy experience. Two prominent Republican consultants were caught on a live mic trashing her. NPR called it a “Full-Fledged Feeding Frenzy.”
As the date of Palin’s speech at the GOP convention neared, there was a sense that her vice presidential candidacy was imploding at the very moment it was supposed to launch.
In the midst of this misfire, however, Democrats were nervous. Not just because they’re preternaturally wired to be so. Officials fretted that the expectations for Palin had been set so painfully low that, were she simply to remain upright during her convention speech, she’d win applause. The Obama campaign itself was more sanguine. But even they felt that Palin was being set up for a cushy reception, heavy on sympathy for the week of hell she’d just endured.
“I think there was an assumption that with expectations where they were, she’d be able to put together a good speech,” said Tommy Vietor, an Obama campaign spokesman that year who had gone to the location of the GOP convention to do counter-programming. “I don’t think there was any expectation she’d be as good and as strong as she was.”
Not only did Palin manage to stand in place for those 45 minutes. As Vietor noted, she delivered an address far more memorable than the one McCain would give a night later. The rave reviews that Democrats anticipated began flowing in.
Eight years later, a similar set of events appears to be unfolding in a similar setting.
A difficult month of press coverage for Donald Trump, compounded by his distinctly off-the-cuff speaking style and a slightly off-key rollout for his vice presidential nominee, has fed expectations that the next few days in Cleveland could go poorly. And Democrats like Paul Begala, an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s super PAC, are worrying once more that a Republican candidate is being graded “on a curve” ― that in Trump’s case, the mere absence of a racially tinged line in his speech or the simple routine of getting through a convention evening without a mishap will be hailed as a sign of presidential timber.
“Reading words off a screen qualifies you to pass third grade, not handle the nuclear codes,” said Begala via email. “Donald Trump has spent more time on camera before running for President than any politician except Ronald Reagan. He is a showman, and the convention is his show. Other settings challenge him more ― think debates. But standing before an adoring crowd is not actually the hardest part of running for President.”
Mindful of that grading curve, Begala argued that the Republican nominee should emerge from Cleveland with a 5 percentage point lead in the polls ― the same that McCain registered after his convention.
“McCain went from 8 down to 5 up. And his convention was shortened by a day due to a storm. AND he carried the viciously unpopular Dubya on his back,” Begala said.
That may overstate the room that Trump has for a post-convention polling bounce (keep in mind that McCain’s big night came after Obama’s in 2008, as opposed to the party sequencing this year). But the notion that Trump will benefit from a low bar is one widely shared, and not just by Democrats.
“The expectations are similarly low, but for different reasons,” said one former McCain campaign aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Right now people are worried about what Trump might say; but in 2008, people were worried about whether Palin could effectively say anything.”
Nicolle Wallace, an adviser to Palin during the rollout and through the convention, said she was still “too close” to the 2008 convention planning to be able to meta-analyze it. And perhaps she blacked out a few memories from her rocky tenure with the former Alaska governor. But Wallace also said she saw in Trump a “potential to vastly exceed expectations” in Cleveland.
“His poll numbers are surprisingly close to Secretary Clinton’s after a very rocky 6-8 weeks,” Wallace said, “and if the convention comes together in a way that is entertaining and credible, he can emerge from his convention tied or ahead of [Clinton].”
Trump certainly brings attributes to the convention that Palin never enjoyed. While she had just a week in the national spotlight to prepare for her speech, he’s been on the campaign trail for well over a year and in the public consciousness for decades longer. He’s a seasoned showman, acutely aware of how television broadcasting works, while her most applicable experience was as a sportscaster for local Alaska television.
For those reasons, expectations should be high for Trump, argued Craig Shirley, a longtime conservative communications specialist and a Ronald Reagan biographer. Shirley added another reason as well.
“He is the nominee. Expectations are almost always high for a nominee to hit it out in their acceptance speech. Think about it. You have lots of time to prepare. You have a crack staff of speechwriters. You have 17,000 (mostly) supportive in the audience. Most everybody is rooting for you.
“Whether he unifies the party is another matter. There are conservatives and Reaganites who remain dubious about Trump, and [running mate Mike] Pence does not have a strong enough tractor beam to pull them in, especially considering his ongoing problems with conservatives over a number of issues,” Shirley added. “The party may well leave Cleveland still divided.”