WASHINGTON — In the most obvious ways, the Democratic and Republican national conventions could not have been more different — in tenor, tone, content and substance.
In plenty of more subtle ways, both followed similar templates for how to stage compelling political theater and communicate a partisan message that will drive votes out for each’s respective candidate in November.
South Carolina Republicans and Democrats didn’t go to the other’s nominating convention, of course, but The Post and Courier embedded with each delegation for much of the festivities in both Cleveland and Philadelphia.
Here are some of the takeaways.
Both conventions would have welcomed speeches from South Carolina’s political stars. Only Democrats took their party up on the offer.
As elected officials, activists and celebrities clamored for even a few seconds to speak at Hillary Clinton’s convention, four South Carolinians were given the chance to shine: U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, state party Chairman Jaime Harrison and former state Rep. Bakari Sellers.
The RNC offered speaking slots to Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, both of whom spoke in Tampa four years ago in support of then-candidate Mitt Romney. Both declined this year, with Haley barely able to say Donald Trump’s name and Scott prepared to speak on his behalf in small groups but apparently not on a national stage. Only Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster ended up playing a role in the festivities, selected to give a nominating speech as the first elected official to endorse Trump in the primary.
One area where S.C. Republicans enjoyed attention and reverence was during the delegation breakfasts.
Two likely presidential contenders in future cycles, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, stopped by to pay regards to the “First in the South” primary state, all but auditioning for South Carolina’s votes in 2020 or 2024. In only one election since the 1980s has South Carolina given its delegates to a candidate who did not eventually become the party’s nominee.
In Philadelphia, S.C. Democrats were not so explicitly courted, though they enjoyed remarks from vice presidential short-lister Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and close friend of Scott’s in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., considered one of the next generation of Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. The last day of the DNC, Democrat Fran Person, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., also stopped by.
Trump’s convention had elements of showmanship designed to delight and excite the crowd. When New York put him over the top of the number of delegates needed to clinch the election, the roll call vote stopped and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared over the speakers. When Trump made his first appearance on the convention stage, he appeared backlit by a white light, in dramatic silhouette, to Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”
Clinton’s convention aimed to be a contrast to Trump’s in the quality, quantity and diversity of speakers, but it was also in many ways more of a spectacle than Trump’s. The DNC had live performances by music stars Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz and Katy Perry. It also had Meryl Streep and Elizabeth Banks while the RNC had Scott Baio and “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson. Anecdotal evidence suggests Trump had a bigger balloon drop; Clinton employed pyrotechnics following her acceptance speech.
Both invited mothers to drive home messages. Trump featured the mothers of a soldier who died in the Benghazi attack and a daughter killed by an undocumented immigrant. Clinton invited mothers who lost children to police shootings and two survivors of the Emanuel AME Church shooting.
The GOP started this year with a field of 17 candidates and ended up with Trump, the political outsider many Republicans still believe lacks the conservative credentials and body of practical experience to run the world’s superpower. Democrats endured a prolonged primary fight between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with many of the latter’s pledged delegates prepared to fight to make the self-described Democratic Socialist the party’s nominee.
Journalists were ready to cover full-scale revolts at both conventions, and they actually came close to having to spring into action. Trump critics tried but failed to “unbind” delegates to allow for the possibility of a different nominee to emerge. Sanders’ supporters were so angry at the suggestion that they back Clinton they spent most of the first day of the DNC booing speakers, even Sanders himself.
But then U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, still stinging from his own presidential primary defeat, refused to endorse Trump during his prime-time speech, and was all but booed off the stage. Many South Carolina delegates who had come around to Trump were furious that Cruz was not embracing a similar spirit of unity, and by his acceptance speech on Thursday they were more resolved to support him.
As protesters demonstrated outside the Wells Fargo Arena, Sanders helped foster unity inside the convention hall by asking that Clinton be named the nominee during the roll call vote. Many of South Carolina’s 13 pledged Sanders delegates found themselves able to cheer for the first woman presidential nominee, or at least sit quietly. At least a few by the week’s end considered themselves full converts.
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.