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How Should Trump Respond To The Cruz Craziness?

In this week’s politics chat, we run through the campaign developments that are likely to transpire in the next few days. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): We’re conducting our weekly politics chat a little late this week, and from Cleveland! And we’re going to do something a little different in terms of topic today. Usually, we like to focus on a single overriding question. But today, let’s talk about the next 48 to 72 hours, which seem likely to be chock-full of news and intrigue. We’ll talk about the aftermath of Ted Cruz’s defiant non-endorsement of Donald Trump, what Trump needs to do in his speech tonight, and the Hillary Clinton VP announcement, which may come very soon after Trump leaves the podium.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): In the next 48 to 72 hours, I hope to not get any more sunburned than I already am. But also, I hope Cruz keeps being disruptive. It makes the hours fly by.

micah: Topic No. 1: Cruz got booed on Wednesday night for telling people to “vote your conscience” and not endorsing Trump. Did Cruz ruin Trump’s convention? Even if he did, does it matter?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Having major Dana Carvey flashbacks right now:

clare.malone: I’m not sure whether or not he ruined Trump’s convention. I think the people in the convention hall were riled up by the Cruz speech and thought it was poor form. But what about the people watching from home? Did they think it was a little rude for Trump to butt in (when he came out at the end of the speech)? Did Trump ruin his own convention?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Can I just point out how ridiculous this whole thing is? First, the Trump campaign knew Cruz wouldn’t endorse. They let him speak in prime time anyway. Second, it would have been a smaller story — à la Jerry Brown not endorsing Bill Clinton in 1992 — but Trump couldn’t take the insult. The crowd starts booing Cruz, and then Trump enters almost as if this was the WWE. So he let Cruz speak and then ensured the media would play up the discord within the party.

natesilver: Let’s not get too cute about this one. Trump basically got humiliated on national television. That’s not how these things are supposed to go. I’m still a little bit in shock.

clare.malone: Totally … but he did know it was coming! It was in the pre-released remarks!

natesilver: Ehh, that’s a bit more complicated. There were two points in the speech where it would have been natural for Cruz to endorse Trump. Once early on, after he congratulated Trump. And then once about three-fourths of the way through the speech, when he talked about voting up and down the ballot for candidates who support freedom. In each case, he ad-libbed an additional line — acknowledging the enthusiasm of the New York delegation was ad-libbed — and drew out the pregnant pause for effect.

So a lot DID change from the remarks as prepared to the remarks as delivered. Even if Cruz hadn’t ad-libbed at all, it would have changed, because the way he delivered the lines drew much more attention to them and made them much more troll-ish.

micah: But the not-endorsing part didn’t change.

natesilver: Well, a lot of people haven’t endorsed Trump. And you don’t necessarily notice, because they’ll just plow right through with whatever platitudes they have.

harry: But that’s the thing — the delegates booed him. The delegates played it up. Then Trump comes in and plays it up more. What were they thinking?

clare.malone: They were thinking “theater.”

natesilver: Well, yeah, I’m not arguing that Manafort et al. did a great job. They seemed to be raising expectations throughout the day — maybe there would be an endorsement? — instead of managing them.

But it was also something you could teach in a rhetoric class — about the difference between a speech as written and a speech as presented.

clare.malone: I think it was foolhardy to expect that a guy like Cruz would be a sure bet to endorse — they had to know this was a possibility, and while I take your point, Nate, about the delivery, I still think that Trump relished the idea of going out there and stepping on Cruz’s toes. Yes, he was getting embarrassed, but he was going to counter-punch — his favorite thing, as we all know.

harry: I get that a speech might be different in text than in person. I get that there was a small chance he would endorse. But you don’t have to even take the risk by letting Cruz speak, and if you’re Trump, you certainly don’t need to enter.

clare.malone: I’m more interested in the people Cruz was talking to, though. Not the theater, ultimately

micah: Right, so let’s take a step back: Does it matter? Do Cruz’s voters stay with him?

natesilver: Most of Cruz’s voters were already with Trump. The Cruz voters who aren’t already with Trump might stay away from Trump instead of coming around, I suppose. But I think that’s slightly too literal a way to think about it. Conventions, and this convention in particular, are supposed to be displays of rallying around the nominee. This was the complete opposite of that, in a way that we haven’t seen at a lot of modern conventions. Folks at home might say, “These guys don’t have their shit together.” Donors might waver. People might pick up the negative buzz in the media, even if they didn’t watch the convention live. Trump might overreact and compound his problems. There are a lot of reasons why something like this can be bad news.

clare.malone: Yes, I think it does matter in the long run. I think a few people might be pissed off with him this year, sure, but ultimately, Cruz’s stick-to-itiveness is what his supporters like about him. I think he might try to use this as basically an Obama 2004 convention-type thing — look at this moment where I made a splash amid all the craziness. Because you can bet your sweet bippy that Cruz is going to run in 2020 whether or not Trump wins. He’s going to try to gather all the movement conservatives to his bosom again and tell them things will be different this time. Same thing works if Clinton wins.

harry: You ever have that perfect piece of food? You don’t know exactly what makes it great. You just know it’s good. I think of conventions like that. I don’t know if there’s a particular thing that makes one convention great and another bad. I think it’s a cumulative effect. And the stuff that happened with Cruz, the stuff that happened with Melania Trump, those things combined don’t help. As for Cruz’s future, we’re a long way from 2020. How his speech is viewed may have a lot to do with how Trump does in the fall.

natesilver: Yeah, and this is getting to be one of the conventions where they sat us 30 minutes late, and then the waiter forgot my drink order, and then when the main course finally came, there was a cockroach in it.

clare.malone: Or good conventions are like how the Supreme Court described hard-core porn: You know it when you see it.

micah: All right, so — given all the Cruz craziness — what should Trump do in his speech tonight?

clare.malone: Oh man, what a great question, Micah. I was thinking about this last night — the RNC is basically the biggest Trump rally we’ve seen yet, so part of me thinks he might just kinda do his thing? With a little help from the teleprompter — light help.

natesilver: I don’t know. Trump already faced this somewhat difficult task of straddling the line between being his usual unscripted (but HIGHLY ENTERTAINING) self and giving a normal speech at the risk of sounding canned. This won’t make it easier. On the other hand, the expectations are pretty low, I guess, and as much as I hate that phrase, that creates an opportunity of sorts.


natesilver: My instinct is that Trump should cut his losses and play it safe, instead of going for a home run.

clare.malone: Oh man, but is that his instinct?

micah: I think it will be really hard for him to resist taking a shot at Cruz.

clare.malone: He’s just been given the biggest stage of his life. Is he going to play it safe? I dunno — I wouldn’t bet on it.

natesilver: It depends on if he takes the Manafort Pill or the Lewandowski Pill.

harry: I’ve been taking vitamin D pills.

micah: What are Trump’s goals?

clare.malone: To Make America Great Again. Duh.

And to make the people at home feel a bit more reassured about what kind of presidency his will be … aka, not a Clinton presidency. I think his best bet is to not talk about things he’ll do, specifically — I think it freaks people out a little to think of Trump in the nuclear code drivers seat — but to talk about what a Republican-controlled White House/Congress could do for the country. A broader vision, if you will. But Trump is not exactly known for seeing the field, seeing the coverage (a term I’m not sure I’m using correctly, but, hey, FiveThirtyEight readers like sports, right?).

natesilver: Either Trump or Clinton would love to exit the conventions with a favorability rating in the 40s instead of the 30s. Which doesn’t seem like that hard a task, but it actually might be!

harry: It would also be nice for Trump if his very unfavorable rating dipped below 50 percent.

micah: So does he play up his conservatism? (such as it is) Does he go full populist? Does he play moderate dealmaker?

harry: I’d try and play moderate dealmaker.

natesilver: I don’t really think it’s about the ideological positioning at this point. It’s more about what Clare says — does he pass the threshold test to be president? For the 60 percent of America that isn’t voting for him so far — is he giving them a reason to vote for him other than “not Clinton”?

With the semi-exception of Mike Pence, who did a pretty good job amid the Cruz carnage on Wednesday night, the convention has been pretty one-sided toward Clinton bashing, as opposed to explaining to swing voters why Trump is a swell guy.

harry: My fear if I’m Trump is that if I go populist, then I’m more likely to not seem presidential. Trump is supposedly all about making deals. So part of me doesn’t understand the yearning to bash a candidate in Clinton who is already unpopular.

clare.malone: He might go the route of his sons’ speeches — a little policy, a little red meat.

natesilver: Yeah, my target tonight is to appease people who are worried about my temperament, even though they’d never in a million years vote for Clinton in an ordinary year.

Trump occasionally has that gear, like in the Miami debate and in some of his speeches after big primary wins. But it’s usually when he’s feeling good about how things are going.

micah: How much would a good speech help? Could he salvage this thing with a barnburner? Would a bad speech compound the misery? Or are we already at peak disaster?

clare.malone: Trump might actually ship a barn in to burn.

natesilver: I think the possible outcomes range from “about average that won’t matter much in the end” to “epic disaster that could be hard to recover from.” Which is a big range, just one weighted in one direction.

harry: I don’t know the answer to how much a good speech can help. It couldn’t hurt. But I do know this: A bad speech would just add to the belief that this convention has been some combination of “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2” and “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.”

natesilver: The thing about the various snafus in the convention so far is that they’re sort of — how to put it — objectively bad. Plagiarism is something that even normally “objective” journalists (I realize that’s a loaded term) feel comfortable calling out. So is the runner-up basically trolling the nominee on national television. Whereas judging a speech as good or bad is a little bit more subjective. In that sense, and to the extent that convention bounces are partly a reflection of media coverage, a lot of damage has already been done.

micah: All right. So after Trump does whatever he’s going to do, we’re likely to get a Clinton VP announcement. Maybe as early as Friday. Harry, who’s on Clinton’s short list?

harry: The names on the shortest of lists seem to be Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Then, of course, there is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

micah: What about Charlie Crist!?

natesilver: That name was basically put out just to troll people into getting excited about Vilsack and Kaine, I think.

micah: That’s a lot to ask.

clare.malone: There was an item from The New York Times that said Bill Clinton is supporting Kaine, which seems like a finger on the scale.

natesilver: The slightly more interesting trial balloon is Admiral James G. Stavridis, who I’m an expert about since I Googled him five minutes ago.

micah: Who’s she going to choose?

natesilver: The Clintons aren’t being too subtle about this. They clearly want everyone to think that it’s either Kaine or Vilsack. Which is probably because it actually will be Kaine or Vilsack, and they want to see if airing their names out brings anything to the fore.

Or it’s a misdirection, and they’re hoping to do something game-changey like pick Warren.

I tend not to think it will be somewhere in between, though. You don’t tease Kaine or Vilsack and then trot out another Boring White Guy.

harry: I remind readers that very few people thought Bill Clinton would pick Al Gore in 1992.

And what Bill Clinton ended up doing was choosing a candidate who reinforced his bona fides.

micah: I think Warren is a no-brainer.

natesilver: Warren would create the most buzz of any pick since Sarah Palin and change the way a lot of people regard Clinton. The conventional wisdom is that she’d be a “risky” pick, however.

clare.malone: omg, I love Clinton palace intrigue. Clinton reportedly met with Warren, and it seemed to be the kind of thing that was “you’re not getting the nod but let’s talk about your role going forward.”

micah: Warren excites the Bernie Sanders voters, she helps the ticket feel less “Secretary of the status quo,” (to borrow Pence’s wonderful turn of phrase). Warren emphasizes the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy and helps defend against Trump’s more populist, Wall Street-themed attacks, which I tend to think are among his most effective against Clinton.

natesilver: Well, look, that’s clearly what they want us to think, Clare. They clearly want us to think it’s Vilsack or Kaine. Which is probably how they’d play it if it actually was Warren. They wouldn’t want us to know it was Warren.

clare.malone: MISDIRECTION

natesilver: I’m not trying to get too cute here — my money is on Vilsackaine.

harry: Here’s a list of folks who CNN reports are slated to speak at the convention:

Note the names that are missing: Kaine, Perez and Vilsack.

natesilver: But let’s not confuse things that Clinton wants the whole world to know for dogged, insightful reporting. They run a tight ship, and everything that’s been leaked they want to be out there.

micah: Al Franken would be a good pick too.


Do you think Clinton announces early Friday if Trump does well tonight? Or if he steps in it, does she wait a little?

natesilver: Well, that’s one of the advantages you have of holding your convention second. You can read and react. If Trump gives a great speech, Clinton could try to step on that as soon as TONIGHT with real and/or fake rumors — just like John McCain did in 2008. All anyone was talking about on Friday was Palin.

And if Trump stumbles, you can let him step in it for a few more days. It’s actually pretty advantageous for the incumbent party to have the conventions back-to-back like this, as we’ve had for the past few cycles. In both 2008 and 2012, the challenging party (Democrats in ’08, Republicans in ’12) got very little convention bounce.

harry: If you look over the past four conventions, the party that held their convention last got the bigger bounce. But that wasn’t the case in previous conventions.

clare.malone: But the bounces generally dissipate, right? Is it all a bit sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing? A fortnight of frothy polls that will eventually settle down?

harry: Yes, they fade somewhat. Tom Holbrook has a lot of good stuff on this.

natesilver: Yes and no. They’ll partly fade, but you hope they fade to a new, higher plateau.

Here’s the other advantage, though. Clinton also has the advantage of knowing how the GOP convention went. Maybe she plays it a little safer if it looks like Trump is less likely to come out of it with a lot of momentum. And maybe — after Trump’s NATO comments — she runs more of a 1964-style campaign, portraying Trump as erratic. That might lead her toward a safer choice, too, and someone with national security credentials.

harry: You mean like someone who serves on the Armed Services Committee?

micah: IDK — I’m not sure it’s smart to choose a VP based on such discrete events.

natesilver: Look, I actually think Warren is an underrated pick in a lot of ways. I’m just saying, it never hurts to have the last move in cases where information is at a premium.

harry: I have learned that trying to predict who the vice president is can be a foolhardy exercise. Moreover, vice presidents generally don’t matter all that much. Still, it’s a load of fun.

One thing we haven’t said yet: Kaine and Vilsack are from swing states. It’s not just that they are vanilla, but they could add a few percentage points in Virginia and Iowa.

clare.malone: Ultimately, I think just the way that Trump is an unpredictable counter-puncher, Clinton is a play-it-safe type. I don’t think she picks Warren, ultimately, because it’s too much of a gamble. I think she goes with a safe choice in Kaine. And I know that I might have to eat my words by saying that here, but I’ve been inspired by Ted Cruz to speak my mind.

micah: Booo!

harry: It’s going to be Vilsack (or one of the other people we mentioned or perhaps none of the above).

natesilver: We might not be able to measure their importance for another three weeks or so, once the polls settle down, but that doesn’t make the next three DAYS any less important.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.