4 takeaways from RNC, Night 4: Trump takes aim at Biden's 'empathy' edge

The convention's final night featured family and advisers portraying the president as a caring person, while he addressed what polls suggest is a significant re-election weakness.
Image: 2020 Republican National Convention
President Donald Trump delivers his acceptance speech as the 2020 Republican presidential nominee during the final event of the Republican National Convention on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 27, 2020.CARLOS BARRIA / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News
By Sahil Kapur

President Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for a second term Thursday on a White House lawn packed with supporters, many of whom weren’t wearing masks as he pledged to "defeat the virus" and "again build the greatest economy in history."

It was a largely standard speech from Trump — a defense of his record, optimistic predictions of a COVID-19 vaccine "this year," and a fiery indictment of Democratic nominee Joe Biden that included myriad exaggerations or falsehoods. Trump portrayed Biden, a moderate Democrat, as "a Trojan horse for socialism" who would grant "free rein to violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals" if he were president.

The speech was delivered in a more subdued tone before a smaller crowd than he had hoped for when the year began, marking the end of a four-day convention that kicks off the final stretch of the 2020 campaign.

Here are four takeaways from the event:

Trump eyes the empathy gap

Trump scores poorly in surveys against Biden when it comes to character issues like empathy, which can shape election results. And on Thursday he downplayed the importance of Biden's personal empathy and asked voters to instead look at his policies.

Trump said states that lost manufacturing jobs after Biden-backed trade deals "didn't want Joe Biden's hollow words of empathy, they wanted their jobs back." He mocked Biden for giving blue collar workers "hugs and even kisses," and said Biden "claims he has empathy for the vulnerable, yet the party he leads supports the extreme late-term abortion."

Trump benefited in 2016 from the fact that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was weak with voters on character questions and viewed as even less honest as him in polls. But the president is less lucky this time around: Biden outperforms Trump on the question of which of the two candidates “cares about people like you" and who is “honest and trustworthy.”

Biden leads Trump by 11 points in a recent CNN poll testing which candidate "cares about people like you." A recent YouGov poll found Biden was 6 points in positive territory on whether he "cares about people like you," while Trump was 9 points underwater on the same question.

RNC highlights from Night 4

Aug. 28, 202003:32

He's secretly nice, say aides

As Trump played the role of attack dog, others made the converse argument: That the pugnacious president Americans see on television is privately a nice and caring person.

“I can tell you: He really cares, and he takes action,” said Ja'Ron Smith, Trump's deputy assistant.

“President Trump is a kind and decent man. I wish he could be at his side with me to see his endless kindness to everyone he meets,” said White House deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino.

"He is one of the most loyal human beings I've ever met," said Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White.

Trump’s daughter and White House adviser, Ivanka Trump: “I have seen all of my life how my dad believes in the potential of each individual.”

Come home, skeptical Republicans

A major theme of the convention was to create a permission structure for soft Republicans who are skeptical of Trump — whether repelled by his tweeting, or his sexist or racist statements — to grant him another four years.

“I recognize that my dad's communication style is not to everyone's taste. And I know his tweets can feel a bit unfiltered,” Ivanka Trump said. “But the results — the results speak for themselves.”

The president touted the record-low Black and Hispanic unemployment rates before COVID-19 hit.

Other speakers portrayed the Democratic Party as controlled by its left-wing, which Biden defeated in the primary after rejecting a number of its policy ideas.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., a first-term former Democrat who switched parties last December, said his former party has “moved from liberal to radical” and “become less accepting of American tradition.”

The convention included testimonials from men and women of many backgrounds, including Black and Latino Americans and former self-described lifelong Democrats who now favor Trump. They spoke less about what the GOP would do and focused on making the case against the Democratic Party.

Former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani called Biden "a Trojan horse with Bernie, AOC, Pelosi, Black Lives Matter and his party's entire left-wing just waiting to execute their pro-criminal, anti-police policies."

A (shallow) plea to Sanders supporters

In 2016, Trump made a play for supporters of Bernie Sanders, the runner-up in the primary. About 12 percent of Sanders primary voters backed Trump that cycle, according to one study.

On Thursday, the RNC again made a thinly-veiled plea for Sanders supporters with a clip package in which a woman said she used to be a Sanders backer, but no more. “You can actually go from being a democratic socialist to a Trump supporter,” she said.

A young man said he had “always been anti-war” in his personal beliefs and argued that “now Trump is, by a mile, the anti-war candidate” in the contest with Biden.

Even if he doesn’t win over Sanders supporters, a depressed turnout or third-party swing among left-leaning voters, which occurred in unusually large numbers in 2016, could affect the outcome in November.

But it’s not clear the strategy will work again: Sanders has endorsed Biden, and the Democratic Party is less divided this year than it was four years ago. And Trump himself managed to undercut the appeal later in his speech, when he disparaged Sanders as "crazy Bernie" and a "wild-eyed Marxist."

A version of this story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.