CLEVELAND — Over his many decades as a public figure, Donald Trump has proven very good at manipulating the press. He became America's most famous real estate developer and one of its most famous rich people, period, despite being far from the nation's most successful developer or richest person. In the past 15 years, he was quite successful at getting ratings for his reality show, The Apprentice. But the skills that were so effective in those settings have proven a poor fit for a national nominating convention.
The big problem is that the main thing nominating conventions accomplish in the post McGovern-Fraser era (the reforms implemented in 1972 that required delegates to be picked in primaries and caucuses) is to unite the party behind the nominee. The convention sends messages that the party is fairly unified behind the ticket, reminding those who usually vote for the party why they like it and dislike the opposing party.
When building your personal business brand, it helps to have opponents and conflict, because journalists love to write about conflict. In reality television, the need for conflict is more intense. What makes a reality show compelling is conflict among the major players and dramatic surprising twists in those conflicts.
Because the goal of a nominating convention is to unite party sympathizers who are watching at home, the aim is essentially the opposite of reality TV's. It is in the nominee's interest to minimize and deescalate conflict.
What we saw Wednesday night was a very good reality show but a bad convention. Trump and his supporters escalated and publicized conflict, when they should have done the reverse. Trump walked out to the family box and stared angrily at Ted Cruz in the middle of Cruz's speech. Multiple press reports are saying that Trump staffers told his delegates to boo Cruz. In the elevator leaving the arena last night, I heard a Cruz delegate say that pro-Trump seat fillers in the delegate sections were booing and encouraging others to boo.
After Cruz's speech, Trump supporter Newt Gingrich didn't simply move on but mentioned Cruz's speech and tried to explain it. Then, of course, Trump took to Twitter with several tweets criticizing Cruz. In every instance, instead of shifting attention away from Cruz and deescalating the conflict, the Trump campaign did the reverse.
And, of course, however others responded, the fact the Cruz failed to endorse Trump so brazenly was itself a dramatic twist that made for great viewing. Trump could have denied Cruz attention by refusing to let him speak, which nominees typically do when rivals refuse to endorse. Yet that would have made the convention more effective and more boring, and Trump didn't do it.
All this made for a great television show. I suspect the ratings were good. But it is a poor convention.