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The chaos during Ted Cruz’s speech was even worse than it seemed on TV

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

CLEVELAND — The first sign that something was wrong came when Sen. Ted Cruz told the crowd not to stay home, to go to the polls, and to vote their conscience. That’s when the Quicken Loans Arena — which was finally crowded and energized after two sleepy primetime evenings — started to get restless.

As Cruz told the attendees at the Republican National Convention to vote up and down the ticket, the chants started to ring out: "Go home!" When it became clear that this was as close as Cruz was going to get to an endorsement, the restive audience turned angry: "We want Trump!"

On the stage, Cruz was circling back to a meant-to-be-touching anecdote about the child of a fallen police officer, but from the back of the arena — directly opposite Cruz's face on the massive video screens — it was impossible to hear anything but the boos of the angry crowd.

It was much louder than it had been when other speakers had tried to rile delegates up on purpose, so loud that I couldn’t tell you how the speech ended. Almost everything after Cruz said "vote your conscience" was subsumed in an angry roar.

Where guests and alternates from the California delegation were sitting, people in Make America Great Again hats were booing. A decorous-looking woman with white hair stood up, yelling, waving both her thumbs down. The chants grew louder: "Trump! Trump! Trump!" "Keep your pledge! Keep your pledge!"

Cruz was booed more lustily during his own speech than Hillary Clinton was during Mike Pence’s. From the floor, just in front of the booing crowd, it felt anarchic, as if anything could happen; security reportedly escorted Cruz's wife, Heidi Cruz, from the arena.

After Cruz finished, fans and delegates stormed out from the stands, livid. "It was very disappointing," said California delegate Marion Ashley. "He’d given a pledge to support the nominee. Donald Trump called him Lyin’ Ted, and he proved himself right. People were chanting, ‘Keep your pledge,’ and he thumbed us the nose."

Just past the stands, Deanna Frankowski, an Alabama delegate wearing a hat that said "Trumpette" and carrying pro-Trump signs under her arm, was hoarse. Had she been yelling? She had, throughout the convention but especially tonight. "I’m really mad," she said. "As far as I’m concerned, his political career with me is over." Cruz, she said, "was like a big crybaby … he put himself first."

Frankowski, like other delegates, was particularly incensed by the "vote your conscience" line — a phrase that the NeverTrump movement had used in its unsuccessful quest to allow delegates to vote for whomever they wanted rather than ratifying Trump’s status as the nominee.

"Toward the end, where the other speakers would say, ‘This is why we need Donald Trump,’ he just said, ‘Vote for your conscience,’" said Nancy Weres, a California delegate. "That doesn’t mean anything."

Joan Camera, a guest of a New York delegate, said that Trump hadn’t been her first choice (that was neurosurgeon Ben Carson) or her second (Marco Rubio). But when it became clear Trump was the nominee, Camera, who owns a small business on Long Island, decided to support him enthusiastically. "We’re disappointed Ted Cruz didn’t keep his pledge," she said.

Camera was particularly angered by Cruz telling the convention to vote up and down the ticket. As she understood it, Cruz was telling them to sit out the presidential race if they must, but elect Republicans to other offices. It demonstrated a "lack of respect," she said.

As the next speakers took the stage, the hubbub died down. Vice presidential candidate Mike Pence delivered a speech that sounded as if it were addressing a group of delegates who had not booed a senator off the stage. A chant of "Lock her up!" even got almost as much enthusiasm as "We want Trump!" had while Cruz was speaking. At the end, the music played, the crowd got on its feet for Pence, and the night almost felt normal.

But from the back of the arena, the crowd didn’t sound as loud cheering for Pence as it did booing Cruz. It would take more than a competent speech to erase the division and discord that had truly, finally brought excitement to the convention floor — in all the wrong ways.

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