What to watch for on the first night of the Republican National Convention

Key Points
  • The virtual Republican National Convention begins Monday night, with key speeches from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. 
  • Convention organizers have promised to strike an optimistic and upbeat tone this week. But this plan could collide with President Donald Trump's preference for apocalyptic warnings about his opponents. 
  • Haley is a front-runner for the Republican Party's presidential ticket in 2024, so we'll be watching to see whether she shows any daylight between her own political persona and the president's. 
Nikki Haley, Governor, South Carolina
Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Republicans launch the first night of their nominating convention Monday, with speeches expected from Donald Trump Jr., Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Two of President Donald Trump's most ardent supporters in the House, Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Jim Jordan of Ohio, are also slated to speak. 

Here's what we'll be watching for. 

An optimistic tone? 

After Trump panned the Democratic convention on Friday as "the darkest and angriest and gloomiest convention in American history," Trump's campaign advisors promised that the GOP would offer something very different this week. 

"You're going to see a great, uplifting message from the president and from our allies," said Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign advisor on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But anyone who has watched Trump give a campaign speech in the past three years knows that uplifting messages are not the president's preferred way to rally support from voters.

Rather, Trump relies on ginning up fears — of crime and immigrants, or more recently, protestors and election fraud — and then paints himself as the last bulwark standing between his supporters and their fears.

The question for convention speakers will be whether to mimic Trump's rhetorical style, which worked for him in 2016, or to try to paint a rosier picture of America instead.

This brings us directly to the next big question of the night, which is how Haley, a leading 2024 presidential hopeful, will position herself vis-a-vis Trump. 

Nikki Haley's post-Trump GOP 

There are two broad factions of potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, and they roughly represent the two potential outcomes of this November's election. If Trump wins reelection, then the most promising GOP presidential candidates in 2024 will be Trump loyalists such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

But if Trump loses to Biden, then Republicans who have positioned themselves to lead a post-Trump Republican Party out of the proverbial wreckage of November will suddenly have the upper hand in 2024. And no one so far has built a more viable post-Trump profile than Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations, who speaks on Monday night. 

Haley resigned from the Trump administration on good terms in late 2018, and the following year she wrote a political memoir, "With All Due Respect," in which she claimed that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told her that he resisted implementing some of Trump's policies because, if he hadn't, "people would die." Haley rejected the idea of working from the inside to thwart Trump.

Nonetheless, Haley has carefully created some space between her own positions and the president's. She has even publicly called Trump out on occasion, like she did in August of last year after Trump insulted then-Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. 


With tweets like these, Haley captured the mood of a significant chunk of the Republican electorate, especially pre-coronavirus, who generally approved of Trump's policies but not necessarily his conduct. 

When she speaks Monday, watch to see how well Haley continues to toe this line between supporting Trump and not condoning his behavior, especially now that more than 175,000 Americans have died from coronavirus.

Does Haley go all in for her former boss? Or does she hint at the fact that Trump, currently the underdog in his own reelection fight, may someday be little more than a bad memory for the Republican Party?

How large will coronavirus loom? 

Nearly every American has been affected in the past eight months by the deadly coronavirus, which has infected more than 5.5 million people in this country and killed more than 175,000. With the United States still leading the world in both deaths and confirmed cases, the Trump administration's response to the pandemic is a stain on the president's record. 

The question this week for Republicans, then, is how to talk about the pandemic and in some cases whether to talk about it at all.

Do they tout the limited successes the White House has had, such as the relatively fast ramping-up of ventilator production this spring? Or the strategically timed announcement on Sunday that the Food and Drug Administration issued emergency approval for a plasma treatment for Covid-19?

The obvious risk is that talking about the pandemic means drawing attention to an issue on which polls show Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of Trump's handling. Alternatively, Republicans could follow Trump's lead. 

Instead of focusing on his response to the pandemic, the president prefers to talk about the record-setting economy he oversaw right before the virus hit in January. Often, Trump then jumps directly from January to June and takes credit for the "return" of jobs that were furloughed or suspended during nationwide lockdowns and quarantines this spring. He conveniently omits the part where the United States experienced a historic and unprecedented economic collapse that continues to this day, in the form of 10.2% unemployment nationwide. 

The question Monday will be how much speakers focus on the virus and its impact, and how much they can get away with ignoring it. 

Who is the intended audience?

Each of the first three nights of a political party convention typically has a specific intended audience. Sometimes it's independent voters and disaffected members of the opposite party. Other times it will be a faction within the party itself, or a key voting bloc, such as voters of color or women voters. 

So who will Republicans be speaking to on Monday night? According to excerpts of tonight's speeches released in advance by convention organizers, the thread that seems to run through most of the speeches is that America is under threat from the "radical left." 

Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis, Missouri, couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters walking by their house in June, will claim, "No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats' America." 

Sean Parnell, a Republican House candidate in must-win Pennsylvania, will say that he "watched with alarm as the party of my grandfather — a lifelong union Democrat — turned against the very people it professed to represent." 

And Rebecca Friedrich, a public school teacher and an anti-union activist, will claim, "Democrats stand with deceptive teachers unions who pick on loving teachers and little kids." 

As for who these warnings are meant to speak to, the answer may well be that they're designed to create a greater sense of urgency about the election among people who already support Trump.

Convention coverage on cable news channels and CNBC.com will begin at 8:30 p.m. ET. Coverage on network prime time begins at 10 p.m.