John Rash
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As “The Apprentice” was peaking in popularity in the mid-2000s, Donald Trump met with advertisers at an annual program development meeting in Los Angeles.

In introducing the show’s star, an NBC executive told me and other media buyers (my pre-journalism job) that Trump was now so attuned to TV ratings that he was reading Daily Variety before the Wall Street Journal.

Trump did indeed learn how to read audiences. And in effect, how to read Americans — at least well enough to be elected president in 2016.

Whether he has as good a read on the country in 2020 won’t be known until Election Day (or days, considering the delayed results many expect).

And whether the Democratic and Republican National Convention ratings reflect the country’s response to the election is uncertain. Viewer interest may not match voter intent. But like public opinion polls, the DNC and RNC ratings show a lead for Joe Biden.

In fact, according to Nielsen ratings data of viewership over 13 cable and broadcast networks, for the four-day conventions more viewers watched the DNC than the RNC, and on the Thursdays when the two candidates spoke it was Biden with the win: About 24.6 million people tuned in the night of Biden’s acceptance speech, compared with about 23.8 million who watched Thursday when Trump accepted the GOP nomination.

While both conventions were watched by fewer viewers than four years ago, when delegates gathered in person instead of virtually, the smaller audience belies the big interest in the election.

Viewers may not have been as compelled by conventions without the traditional trappings of frenzied (and at times fractious) delegates. Or it could confirm that Americans are so decided — and divided — that they just didn’t want to watch the other side, let alone their party’s presentation.

As a result, post-convention polling spikes may not be as pronounced as previous presidential races. Instead, the unpredictable news narrative will likely be more determinative.

News like Hurricane Laura, which hit the same day as Trump’s speech, or the wildfires in California, producing smoke that can be seen in Kansas and beyond, or the derecho in Iowa, a devastating event mostly missed by mainstream media organizations focusing on other events — like the conventions themselves.

Scientists will weigh in on what role climate change may have played in these disasters, but Republicans certainly didn’t. Climate change was a nearly nonexistent issue at their convention, yet it was an existential one for Democrats.

Other crises have a similar Democrat-Republican Rorschach quality, like the racial reckoning that’s rattling America — including the key swing states of Wisconsin and yes, Minnesota — to the core.

Kenosha is the latest national flash point after the shooting of Jacob Blake, who is Black, by a white police officer, who fired seven shots into Blake’s back, paralyzing him.

Similar to situations in other cities, including Minneapolis with the killing of George Floyd, people took to the streets. Most protested. Some looted. And one, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Antioch, Ill., exponentially exacerbated the tragedy by allegedly killing two citizens and wounding another with a military-style semi-automatic rifle.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, on the third night of the RNC, looting broke out downtown, apparently triggered by the mistaken impression of a police shooting (a homicide suspect took his own life on the Nicollet Mall). About 132 people were arrested and two Minneapolis police officers were injured. For the second time this year, the Minnesota National Guard was deployed to restore order.

“Law and order” was a persistent, pervasive GOP theme throughout most Republicans’ remarks this week, including Trump’s 70-minute speech. But the focus wasn’t on Rittenhouse or Derek Chauvin and the three other officers accused in Floyd’s killing but on people like Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who became well-known by brandishing weapons in response to a protest.

Conversely, several professional athletes and even organizations focused on Floyd and Blake and others, with some teams going on strike and others wearing symbols of protest.

Whether there will be a protest contagion among college football players slated to play in a few weeks remains to be seen. Actually, it remains to be seen whether the athletes themselves will be seen. Several teams have reported COVID cases as campuses coast-to-coast see spikes.

Much younger students are also vulnerable, and some schools set to open in full or in hybrid models have already rapidly returned to distance learning. This dynamic could actually be the key crisis voters focus on in the election, especially since so many will vote early, just after the school year starts (or ends, at least in person).

Schools are just one component of the coronavirus crisis that still grips the nation, despite the way the president and his advisers like Larry Kudlow tried to gloss over the ghastly facts. “It was awful,” Kudlow said of the pandemic, adding that “health and economic impacts were tragic,” as if the tragedy is in the past tense on a day when about 1,200 passed away in America from COVID complications.

The health and economic impacts Kudlow referenced, let alone the emotional ones for those close to the more than 180,000 Americans who have died, will not be as easily dismissed, and may be the deciding dynamic when voters take to ballot boxes on Nov. 3, or mailboxes in just a few short weeks.

Other factors that could be determinative: an international incident involving China and Taiwan or Russia and Belarus, or other geopolitical crises that would invariably involve the U.S. Or the vote could turn on voting issues themselves, given the constant controversy over mail-in balloting or other electoral issues already at play. Then there are the three presidential debates (and one vice-presidential meeting), the first of which takes place a month from Saturday, on Sept. 29.

Either way, a genre the president presided over — reality TV — will be hugely influential to the outcome. Only it won’t be the staged, stale version that “The Apprentice” and others once made so popular, but the original, and ultimate, reality show: the news.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.