CLEVELAND — As the Republican National Convention begins here today, many Americans are wondering: So what, in this day and age, are political conventions all about, anyway?
They’ve long since outlived their original intent: to nominate candidates for president and vice president. Even in an election year like this one, with numerous twists and turns, voters have known for weeks the choice will be between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in the fall.
The last time a convention week started without a clear nominee was in 1976, when Republicans gathered at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., to choose between President Ford and Ronald Reagan. The 1980 Democratic convention featured a rules fight that could have affected the outcome, but it fizzled.
That isn’t to say this week will be lacking for drama. In Trump, the GOP has a most unpredictable standard-bearer, and no one is quite sure what he’ll do or say — about energy, the environment or anything else. No one can be sure he won’t insult political opponents or the nation’s enemies — real or imagined — or even putative friends.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was a longtime party strategist before being elected to Congress in 2002, said conventions are important because they represent one of the first times voters plug in to the presidential election.
"Most Americans are just beginning to pay attention, and so this is a really important moment" for Trump, he said in an interview.
"The convention itself, which [Trump] controls basically the script for, will do a lot to tell people what kind of president he aspires to be," Cole continued.
"He’ll use the platform to try and reach beyond Republican ranks, so obviously there will be a lot of coverage and a lot of interest and a lot of opportunities to project a more positive image."
Like many other political professionals, Kerry Haynie, an associate professor of political science at Duke University, said he was curious to see whether Trump as the formal nominee will "transition to a more presidential tone and demeanor" after a year on the campaign trail as a provocateur.
Haynie said he will also "be interested in how Mr. Trump balances the competing imperatives of reaching out to moderate establishment Republicans, especially women, on the one hand, and consolidating and mobilizing his insurgent base on the other."
The Republican establishment has long been on edge about Trump — and the security lockdown of this city’s stately downtown, wedged between the Cuyahoga River and the shore of Lake Erie, seems a perfect metaphor for the state of the party. The area is walled off by acres of forbidding tall black fencing, with security forces everywhere.
Even when Ford and Reagan were duking it out 40 years ago, with the nomination clearly in doubt, GOP leaders could comfort themselves knowing the battle was between two seasoned officeholders who knew a thing or two about governing. But with Trump, many feel like they’re jumping into the abyss.
Breathless media accounts have documented the high-profile Republicans who are refusing to set foot in the Quicken Loans Arena for Trump’s convention — including host governor and erstwhile presidential contender John Kasich, who has appearances scheduled throughout the city this week, some just steps away from the convention venue itself.
But in fact, many Republican leaders are dutifully making the trip to the convention, even if they are reluctant to talk much about its greater significance.
"I sat down with one of my staffers and said, ‘Let’s figure out what clothes I have to bring,’" Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a convention delegate, said late last week. "I still haven’t figured that one out."
Bishop will be one of the few energy policy leaders from Capitol Hill showing up in Cleveland.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has signaled that she’ll support the Republican nominee despite her concerns over Trump’s "numerous inappropriate statements in the past that are troubling," will stay home to focus on her re-election.
Murkowski last week said the decision was not about distancing herself from Trump but was driven by her Aug. 16 primary, which will require extensive travel throughout the state by bush plane.
"So I have exactly 30 days — 30 days to cover a state that is one-fifth the size of the United States of America, communities, 80 percent of which are not accessible by road," she told reporters. "So I am moving everywhere."
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is unable to attend, a spokesman said Friday in an email, without elaborating.
Upton last month said he would not endorse Trump. The chairman told a Michigan radio station that his party’s new face had gone "off-track."
Among those who are showing up, for at least part of the week, are Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a senior member of the Energy panel who is the chairman of the party’s platform committee; Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.); Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee; and Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), both also members of Murkowski’s committee.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of both the Environment and Energy panels who also sits on Appropriations, will be speaking at the convention tomorrow night.
She is expected to drive home the message that coal country has floundered under eight years of the Obama administration and will plead for an end to the "war on coal" and an easing of federal regulations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may echo those remarks when he speaks that same night.
On the convention floor docket Wednesday night is Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources Inc., who has become a prime energy adviser to Trump.
Energy and Commerce Vice Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), another industry booster, will speak Thursday, the same night Trump delivers his acceptance speech.
As unconventional a nominee as Trump is, he has largely aligned with industry groups and fellow Republicans on energy policy, thanks in part to the influence of Hamm and Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), another Trump energy adviser and former state utility regulator. Just last week, Trump received the endorsement of the American Energy Alliance, a group affiliated with the Koch brothers.
Asked what energy messages he’d like to hear from the Trump forces this week, Cole, from the industry-friendly Sooner State, replied, "Probably the biggest frustration I hear people talking about is deregulation and the intrusiveness of the federal government, so I think that, tax code and energy independence would be the big three for me domestically."
For those who aren’t in the host city during a convention week, it’s easy to forget there’s more to the experience than what takes place in the convention hall or is seen on prime-time TV.
For politicians, delegates, advocates of all stripes and the media that cover them, the week is jam-packed with activities — the brainy and the boozy — all of which take place in a carnivallike atmosphere overseen by thousands of nervous law enforcement officers.
In Cleveland, industry groups will have countless opportunities to peddle their wares and advance their arguments. Among those scheduled to speak at media-sponsored policy forums this week, for example, are Cramer; Karen Harbert, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy; and American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard.
Corporations and an array of industry groups also sponsor events around town. For example, the National Pork Producers Council co-sponsored Saturday night’s bacon- and beer-themed party at an outdoor concert pavilion along the Cuyahoga River to welcome the media. Another big party in downtown Cleveland last night that drew thousands of people was co-sponsored by FirstEnergy Corp.
At hotels throughout the Cleveland metropolitan area, industry groups — or, in some cases, their hired guns based in state capitals — will be sponsoring breakfasts, lunches and parties held by the state delegations to the convention.
It can reach a point, as conventiongoers are bellying up to the bar one more time, that the sponsorships become ubiquitous — and immaterial.
Environmental groups will mostly be lying low in Cleveland, offering stray criticisms of Trump; his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence; and other leading Republicans.
These can range from the pithy — Sierra Club Political Director Khalid Pitts last week said, "Trump and Pence are a one-way ticket to climate and environmental disaster" — to the more substantive. Also last week, for example, the Democratic centrist think tank Third Way issued a paper dissecting Trump’s climate positions.
Greens will be far more in evidence the following week at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. A clean energy rally has been scheduled for Sunday in the heart of the city, and the Democratic platform has been widely — though not universally — praised by greens.
"The national platform is very strong on climate change," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member on the House Natural Resources panel. "It doesn’t directly deal with the carbon tax but is very strong on the issue and leads you into that direction."
Democrats, as has now become the tradition, will operate a war room in Cleveland to rebut the GOP’s message. Republicans will do the same at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the party wants to be active in Cleveland because it will help members attempt to link Republican candidates for House and Senate to the controversial Trump. Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began airing TV ads comparing certain Republican incumbents to the presumptive GOP nominee.
"We’re on offense," Luján said in an interview. "We have a contrast. Not only do we have a plan to make sure that we are taking advantage of all the negative environment that surrounds Donald Trump, we’re going to highlight the amazing recruits that we have, and the success … in 65 districts across the country where we have recruited announced candidates and a growing battlefield, and race changes that are favoring Democrats."
Traditionally, political parties have anticipated a "convention bounce" — a bump in the polls after a full week of message-making on national TV. But this is the third straight presidential election cycle where the conventions have been held in back-to-back weeks, limiting the opportunities for a bounce — especially for the party whose convention goes first.
About 12 hours after the Republican convention gavels to a close Thursday night, Clinton is expected to announce her running mate, likely in Florida — and it’s always possible that word on Clinton’s selection could leak out before that.
That’s what happened just hours after Barack Obama closed out his successful convention in 2008 — his Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, announced that Sarah Palin would be his vice presidential nominee.
Cole said he was hoping for the best in the convention’s aftermath — "and a sense of unity." He said his ideal convention would be "like New Orleans in 1988." That’s when George H.W. Bush became the Republican nominee.
Cole called it "the best one I ever went to. Upbeat, optimistic. We were behind in the polls, but people felt like we wanted to win. At that time, we used to win presidential contests pretty routinely, so it was like being with a really good football team."
Reagan, the outgoing president, was a unifying figure then, Cole said. "We don’t really have that now."
Reporters Geof Koss, Nick Sobczyk, Colby Bermel and George Cahlink contributed.