The confetti cannons at Cleveland's Quicken Loans arena are armed and ready. Tens of thousands of balloons are inflated — courtesy of students at a local high school — and waiting in the rafters. Members of the media — some 15,000 of them — are all in place, seated behind laptops, mobile phones, microphones and TV lights.
The carpets are red; the food is fried; and the 5,000 security personnel on hand have turned this city's downtown into something resembling a military encampment.
In short, everything is in place for arguably the most important moment the Republican Party will face this presidential election season: the quadrennial Republican National Convention and the all-but-certain nomination of Donald Trump as the GOP's official candidate. Now all that's needed are the delegates and party bigwigs to bring it all together and party.
But what if they stayed home? Or, worse yet, what if those who came just didn't feel like having a party?
Divisions on display
Much has already been made of the divisions on display in this year's Republican Party. The primaries were a bitter affair, with all but one of the 17 hopefuls leaving bloodied, some of then angry.
The presumptive nominee, billionaire Donald Trump, has largely foregone the standard outreach to opponents and party elders in hopes of creating a unified front, as well as occasionally using language that could at best be termed intemperate. Even now, with nearly all their options exhausted, the so-called "Never Trumpers" continue to plot trouble and mayhem during the nomination process.
In short: these are not happy campers.
Then there are the GOP bigwigs who have suddenly decided their summer calendar is simply too full to attend the biggest event of the political season. Former opponents Senator Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush are staying home. Governor John Kasich — who’s home is Ohio – has a full schedule in Cleveland, just nowhere near the floor of the party’s convention. Senators Kelly Ayotte, Jeff Flake, Mark Kirk, Mike Crapo, Ron Johnson — all no-shows. Previous GOP nominees John McCain (2008) and Mitt Romney (2012) will also be elsewhere. Even the only two living previous Republican presidents — George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — are not attending.
Now to be sure, many delegates here in Cleveland are enthusiastic about Trump, plastering their hats, vests, bags, even their hair, with pro-Trump baubles and symbols. If you ever wondered just who, exactly, wanted to "Make America Great Again,” you'll find plenty of them here.
But even among those attending, all is not well. The first hint was Jacqui (last name withheld), the last one to board a cramped early morning United flight from Washington to Cleveland (taking the empty seat next to me in the process). Her cream suit, stylish haircut and scarf suggested an accomplished professional, maybe a delegate, which, in fact, she turned out to be.
Was she excited about going to the convention? "Well, you know, it's always an adventure," she said with something like a sigh that suggested “I’d really rather not talk about it.” She was pledged on the first ballot to vote Trump, which she said she'd gladly do. Was she originally a Trump supporter? "Well, I am now. I'm a lifelong Republican," she said before rummaging in her purse, signaling this conversation was over.
Next were some old reporter friends in Washington who run into each other every convention cycle. Journalists love to grumble, but even more they love free food and goodies. And at every convention in recent memory (these are Nos. 9 and 10 for me), the party stages a free shindig for all the media in town to come put on the feed bag, knock back a few drinks, compare our greying beards, and take home a little bag of convention swag.
Except this year, the swag hit a snag as all the keepsakes donated by corporations simply never showed up. Companies from Coca-Cola to Ford to Wells Fargo and many more in between decided to sit on their hands this convention. The Republican National Committee couldn't even afford a media party of any size. OK, not really so much of a big deal (unless you're a hungry journalist), but yet another sign that corporations known for their largesse at these events decided to sit this one out. Even delegates are having to make due with a convention that's more Walmart than Saks.
'I just don't know'
But conventions don't exist in a vacuum, and whether they like it or not, the locals of Cleveland are very much a part of what's happening here. Now Cleveland isn't exactly a Republican town (see: Dennis Kucinich), but they are friendly, and they love anything that brings money to town and puts their bedraggled hometown in a good light. So at least perhaps they're ready for a party?
"I just don't know this year … I just don't know," Dave, my Uber driver and a part-time jewelry wholesaler, told me on the way to a grocery store. "I'm no Democrat — my brother and sister-in-law are both FBI agents," he said. "I call them Scully and Mulder,” characters who played FBI agents in a long-running science fiction television series.
He was listening to CNN on satellite radio, getting updates about the most recent police shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So wouldn't a self-proclaimed “law-and-order” candidate like Trump be tailor-made for his vote?
"I dunno, I just don't know what to make of this year," Dave said. "I can't stand either of them. I mean, I guess I'm happy the Republicans are in town, but I just don't get them this year. I just don't know what I'm going to do."
All this week on TV screens across the world, viewers will see stage craft designed to not just communicate positions on issues, but reach out to people where they most often vote: their hearts and fears, their hopes and guts. It will be exactly they same one week later in Philadelphia when the Democrats roll out the carpets for their dance party.