When the balloons and confetti drop on President Donald Trump this week, Ken Blackwell will be sitting at home in Cincinnati.
It’ll be the first Republican National Convention the former Ohio secretary of state and treasurer has missed in 40 years.
“The energy in that room,” Blackwell said. “The jolt that you get is inspiring.”
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He can remember the electricity that ran through the crowd in 1988 when former President George H.W. Bush made the now infamous campaign promise: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
“That it turned out to be a very pivotal line in ’88,” Blackwell said. “But it was one that came and bit him in the butt.”
Still, he said, “all the glitter” of the convention lasts for only a few nights.
“Nothing’s going to change in terms of the work schedule that’s in front of us,” Blackwell said. “The substitute for that jolt is the importance of this race. This is the most consequential race for the direction of the country.”
Trump won Ohio in 2016 by 8 percentage points, outperforming his party’s 2012 nominee Mitt Romney — by wide margins — in all but five Ohio counties. But the race for the Buckeye State looks closer in 2020 with former Vice President Joe Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket. A poll from July showed Biden with a 46% to 42% lead over the president.
But Blackwell told The Dispatch the president’s hybrid approach to campaigning is going to put him over the top.
Unlike the Democratic National Convention, which was almost entirely virtual, 336 delegates from across the country will converge in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the formal process of nominating Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Ohio is sending six delegates.
That limited, socially distanced crowd is much smaller than the thousands of supporters Trump had hoped to address in Jacksonville, Florida, just a few weeks ago, but Blackwell said even a small crowd is a smart move.
“He’s re-imagined how you substitute the dynamism you are going to be missing from those portions of the campaign that are virtual,” he said.
The Ohio GOP is taking a similar tack. It rented out a drive-in movie theater in Columbus for Trump’s speech and local groups around the state are hosting small watch parties.
JD Kaplan, who runs the Dublin Republican Club, compared it to shopping online. You can think something appears great on your computer screen, but then it arrives looking nothing like the picture. That’s the way it is with candidates, he said. Looking someone in the eyes and asking questions is still the best way to gauge a person’s merit.
Kaplan hosts weekly happy hours at The Bogey Bar & Grill in Powell where Republican candidates such as Hilliard state Sen. Stephanie Kunze and Secretary of State Frank LaRose come to speak.
The rules are simple, he said. “If you’re standing, you need to wear that mask … Not everyone buys into it, but these are the restaurant’s rules.”
The Rev. John Coats, a Columbus-area pastor and Republican delegate, plans to take his daughter to the GOP drive-in Thursday.
He’s happy to share the moment with her, but he’s still going to miss the connections and conversations that happen off the convention floor.
“I am going to miss seeing people from across the country who look like me,” Coats said. “People who are Black, who are conservative, who are pro-life leaders who are doing amazing programs across the country.”
Coats, who leads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance in Columbus, likes the way Trump talks.
“As a pastor, I realize that successful communication has to deal with if the people you’re talking to understand what you are saying,” Coats said. “He speaks in pictures, and the things that he talks about are easily definable.”
And that can resonate through a computer or television.
He vividly remembers watching Jesse Jackson, who ran and lost the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1984, give his speech to the convention.
Coats was a 16-year-old Democrat back then, and he’d worked hard to elect Jackson. The defeat stung, but the speech Jackson gave urging his followers to support someone else was uplifting and inspiring.
“Black households across the country watched that speech,” he said. “I remember it was even available on VHS at the Blockbuster.”
He said the president has the same opportunity to reach families across America Thursday night and inspire them to action. Coats hopes Trump rises to meet the challenge.