Lord Ashcroft’s diary from the Republican Convention in Florida – Day Three

Throughout this week Lord Ashcroft will be submitting a diary from Tampa, Florida where the Republicans are meeting to nominate Mitt Romney for the US Presidency.

The thing that makes this election so hard to call is that according to historical precedent, neither candidate can possibly win. Presidents do not get re-elected when their job approval is as low, and unemployment is as high, as it is for Obama. But challengers do not win when their personal negatives are as high as Romney’s. Another yardstick it at hand. Since 1964, with one exception in Michael Dukakis, the victor has been the candidate who led in the Gallup poll 100 days before election day. So who was it, Obama or Romney? It was a tie: 46% to 46%.

Given the state of the economy and the disappointment with the President’s record, says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, Romney ought to be comfortably five points ahead. Romney himself is the main reason why this is not the case: “He has a keen analytical mind, you can see why he is one of the top corporate problem solvers. At the same time, if he had taken one of those Myers Briggs tests, I don’t know that it would have suggested he go into politics”. In addition, while the party’s potential supporters have always divided between “country club Republicans” and “truck stop Republicans”, the Democrats’ greater appeal among white collar classes means there are now more of the latter, while Romney is naturally one of the former.

If Romney is largely a blank slate in the public mind, the same is even more true of Paul Ryan. As his speech on Wednesday night showed, he is tremendously popular with activists, but they are the only ones who know anything about him outside his Wisconsin Congressional district. Republicans here say his selection as the Vice Presidential nominee shows the seriousness of Romney’s candidacy. With echoes of George W. Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney in 2000, the decision seems to have been taken with an eye to governing at least as much as for what he can bring to the campaign. Ryan’s case against Obama was that he had wasted borrowed money trying to create a culture of entitlement: the President wants “a country where everything is free but us”.

Anyone hoping the debates will be a game-changer for Romney is going to be disappointed, according to Cook. Debates matter, but are only decisive in certain circumstances. In 1980, voters found Reagan likeable but were not sure he was smart enough. The debates answered that question and broke his deadlock with Carter; he won by 10 points. But voters do not doubt that Romney has a sound command of the issues: they need to know more about his values and character. The debates are hardly the best platform to begin connecting with people on a personal level. This makes the Convention all the more important. Meanwhile, Hurricane Isaac continues to blow.

The co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates is Frank Farenkopf, once a close colleague of President Reagan and chairman of the Republican National Committee. The negotiations over the debate details can be byzantine. In 1998, the Commission had to put the six foot two President Bush behind a podium next to the diminutive Michael Dukakis. The solution was to build a “bubble” for Dukakis to stand on, with the stipulation that the top of the podium would reach the third button on each candidate’s shirt.

Grover Norquist is the very engaging founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Recalling President Obama’s 2008 campaign promise that “no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase”, ATR have taken him at his word and produced an Obamacare Tax Exemption Card. “The bearer of this card earns less than $250,000 a year and is thus exempt from the following direct and indirect Obamacare taxes”, it says, before listing nine. “Present this card to merchants, employers and tax authorities. If validity of card is questioned, ask, ‘Are you calling President Obama a liar?'” Norquist has some funny lines. “Gun owners are two to one for Romney over Obama. So if you’re looking for Christmas gifts for your unarmed friends, shop early”.

The Republicans’ deficit among minority voters has been a recurring theme. For Cook, Romney’s continued hard line on immigration can only be damaging, especially among Latinos. While the Governor is not going to win among this group whatever he does, losing them by 28 points rather than 35 points could be the difference between victory and defeat. At the same time, they should never be thought of as a monolithic group, and given their deep-seated suspicion of Republicans they would not have responded to a late gesture such as picking Marco Rubio as Romney’s running mate. This would have been a mistake, says Cook: “picking a Cuban American to go after Mexican Americans and Dominicans would be like saying ‘we need to suck up to the Irish, let’s pick an Englishman’.”

The Congressional elections also taking place on 6 November will be critical in determining how much of his programme Obama or Romney is able to enact. “It would take a pretty substantial act of our Lord to lose our majority in the House”, says Barry Jackson, senior counsellor to House Speaker John Boehner. They hope to make gains too, thanks to what the Speaker calls his Orphan Programme for supporting Republican candidates in tight races outside the Presidential battleground states. Until recently the party had high hopes of taking back the Senate. The Todd Akin debacle could be damaging here. “They need to find a way to replace him as soon as possible, and with a woman”, says one well-placed observer. “Claire McCaskill [the Democrat incumbent] is extremely vulnerable. Any other candidate would have beaten her like a rented mule”.

Despite its long-term demographic difficulties, one thing the Republican Party has going for it is an extremely strong “bench”. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose keynote speech on Tuesday is already regarded as an all-time Convention great, remains a popular prospect for the future having proved his ability to appeal to a heavily Democratic state. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, would be the nominee already were it not for his surname, according to Charlie Cook. “Every three months he gets a geiger counter and holds it up to his name, and when it goes ‘gzzzzzzz’ he says, ‘damn, still radioactive’. One day it will just crackle a bit, and he’ll say, ‘OK, now I can run’.”

One thing you would struggle to pick up about this Convention from the American media, certainly the broadcasters, is the friction that persists between the Ron Paul supporters and the party mainstream. During the early proceedings on the floor Convention floor there was open acrimony, complete with chanting and booing. Anything like that at a party conference in Britain would be the lead story, at least on the BBC, taking up the first 20 minutes of the Six O’Clock News and an extended edition of Newsnight.

The “business casual” dress code prescribed by our hosts has met a variety of interpretations. Many of the global parliamentarians are wearing ties, I can report, though not usually the Australians (former Prime Ministers excepted). Our own delegation is perhaps the most stylish, including as it does Dan Hannan, resplendent as ever in his cream linen, and Sajid Javid, sporting a fetching light tweed. On the Convention floor, bizarre headgear signifying the wearer’s home state (the Wisconsin delegation favours big blocks of foam cheese, for example) mixes incongruously with smart blazers, often on the same person.

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