Follow live coverage of the RNC all week at NPR.org/conventions.
The first night of the Republican National Convention was a little scattershot. It seemed to be partially about counter-programming the Democratic National Convention last week, partially intended to fire up the base and partially aimed at winning back some of those 2016 Trump voters who are having second thoughts.
Trump had promised an “uplifting” convention, but aside from an opening video and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s closing speech, which largely wasn’t about President Trump at all, the night painted an image of a liberal dystopia that would take hold if Democrat Joe Biden is elected.
Here are four takeaways from Monday night of the Republican National Convention:
1. Republicans tried to appeal to their base and retain soft Trump voters
When Republicans are surveyed, they show little to no slippage in their support of President Trump. And more Trump supporters than Biden supporters say they are voting out of enthusiasm for their candidate rather than in opposition to his rival.
But Trump is struggling to keep some of the same voters he won in 2016, from suburbanites and seniors to men — to white voters overall.
For a while, Trump’s support in head-to-head surveys with Biden was higher than his approval rating. In other words, there was a slice of voters who disapproved of the job Trump was doing but said they would still vote for him.
The convention’s first night projected a heavy fear factor. At times, it presented an almost apocalyptic message of what would happen if Democrats take control of the country — an attempt to excite the base, but also to try to shake up those voters who pulled the lever for Trump four years ago but might now be wavering.
2. Speakers focused on trying to fix Trump’s vulnerabilities
Whether it was his handling of the coronavirus pandemic or the view that Trump is not empathetic enough, there were efforts Monday night to change the narrative.
Most of the early program dealt with COVID-19 and tried to sell that Trump has done a lot to fight it and has saved lives — despite the president having dismissed the gravity of the virus early on and been resistant to wearing a mask.
There was a video with regular people talking to the president at the White House. (There was even a postal worker.) He was smiling and asking questions and listening — not something you generally see out of President Trump.
Organizers are hoping that for the sliver of people who are still undecided, that portrait of Trump can help.
3. Republicans so wanted to run against socialism, but instead they got Joe Biden
You get the sense that Republicans began scripting this convention during the Democratic primary, when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was the front-runner, and never changed the playbook. They’d like to run against socialism, and they’d like to paint Biden as being beholden to what Republicans call the radical left.
“Settle for Biden. That’s the hashtag promoted by AOC and the socialists,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “The Woketopians will settle for Biden, because they will make him an extra in a movie written, produced and directed by others.”
But Biden’s Democratic opponents criticized him during the primary for working with Southern segregationists. And now Republicans want to paint him as a puppet of “The Squad,” the group of liberal congresswomen who conservative media love to attack.
That’s a tough argument to make stick to Biden, because he’s a known quantity — in the public eye for nearly half a century, and no radical.
If you don’t buy the socialism label though, Gaetz implied in the last part of his statement that Biden’s not the same guy he used to be. Like President Trump has insinuated, Gaetz’s implication is that Biden’s mental acuity has slipped.
What’s more, no one except South Carolina’s Tim Scott — who focused on the specifics of Biden’s record — really went after him in a way that was more than a generic anti-liberal caricature.
4. Tim Scott stood out — and may have given wavering Republicans a reason to vote for Trump
There were plenty of speeches made by high-profile conservatives Monday night, including Donald Trump Jr. and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
But the speech that stood out was the one made by Scott, the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate (there are two Black Democrats in the Senate). He went beyond promoting Trump.
“Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” Scott said, “and that’s why I believe the next American century can be better than the last.”
Scott’s address was policy-driven, and it was hopeful, and maybe did more to vault him to the presidential conversation in 2024 or 2028 than make a case for why Trump should be reelected.
He was almost pleading with those wavering Republican voters, reminding them of why they’re Republicans and why they are against the Democratic alternative.
Scott granted permission — and a reason — for why they should vote for Trump in this election.
“While this election is between Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” Scott said, “it is not solely about Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It’s about the promise of America.”
In other words: You might not love Trump, but fight for conservative policies and the kind of country you want.