I received an interesting email from a center-right reader yesterday, responding to my piece about the Republican National Convention turning into the “Mistake by the Lake.” The gist of his note was pretty straightforward: this GOP gathering may have gone poorly, but the missteps were inconsequential.
Melania Trump’s plagiarism was embarrassing, reader D.S. said, but there’s not a voter in the country whose opinions were swayed by the controversy. Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Donald Trump was an uncomfortable reminder about intra-party fissures, but it’s only of interest to those who pay close attention to the granular details of politics.
The American mainstream electorate, D.S. effectively argued, doesn’t care. People who were inclined to vote for Trump are still inclined to vote for Trump. Those who found his message compelling before the convention won’t feel any differently as a result of a messy national convention.
It’s a fair observation, but I think it’s overlooking an important angle: the “opportunity cost” of the convention.
Readers with MBAs will probably tell me I’m butchering the definition, but as I understand it, an opportunity cost refers to the loss of a possible gain. You could have invested in A, which did well, but you instead invested in B, which didn’t do well. The opportunity cost is the return you could have received from the superior investment you didn’t make.
What does this have to do with the Republican convention? Quite a bit.
Consider Monday night in Cleveland. The opening night of the Republican convention went largely according to plan, right up until a journalist noticed that several sentences from Melania Trump’s speech sounded very familiar. Did the controversy that followed move the electoral needle? Probably not, but there’s no doubt it dominated the political conversation on Tuesday – and thanks to Team Trump, into Wednesday.
Had the candidate’s wife delivered the same speech minus the plagiarism, it’s likely Americans would have heard a very different message out of Cleveland after the first night. Indeed, the messages Republicans were eager to stress – Benghazi conspiracy theories, email server protocols, fear of terrorism – were overshadowed because Melania Trump presented someone else’s words as her own.
The opportunity cost, in other words, was enormous.
The same is true of the Cruz speech. The Texas senator thumbed his nose at Trump, urged Republicans to “vote their conscience,” and drew intense booing from convention attendees. It created a memorable and dramatic moment that dominated political coverage of the party gathering.
And in the process, no one remembers or cares anything about vice presidential hopeful Mike Pence’s speech, which was supposed to be one of the more important moments of the entire convention.
Again, the opportunity cost was real.
The assertion that these convention missteps changed few minds is fair, but the more salient question is the potential effects of the alternative. If the Republican gathering went off without a hitch – everyone was on message, intra-party divisions were resolved, candidates and officials put forward a compelling vision with broad appeal – voters would be hearing a lot right now about a “Trump triumph” and a Republican Party that pulled it together when it counted.
But that was the road not traveled and the Republican National Convention was a bit of a fiasco. Whether that moved the electoral needle or not, there should be no question about the lost opportunity for possible gain.
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The opportunity cost of the Republican convention