One of the more atavistic phenomena in our political system has been the quadrennial national party convention, an event full of stage-managed pomp and manufactured enthusiasm put together for television in lieu of the actual deliberation that used to mark these occasions. As someone who helped staff six of these events from 1988 through 2008, I’ve always wondered when this institution as we have known it would perish. Even if 2020 does not mark an end to national conventions, it may change them dramatically, if only because this is a really bad time to gather tens of thousands of people in one place for four days of essentially unnecessary hoopla.
It’s probably a good thing for Democrats that once-robust talk of a contested convention in Milwaukee faded into insignificance just before the coronavirus pandemic spurred talk of a virtual convention. Converting the event into something managed by remote control at the same time as it regained its deliberative function might have been too much to handle. As it is, the coronavirus has already delayed the official end of the nomination contest itself, which in turn delays the handover of convention planning from the national party to the nominee.
For Democrats, at least, the decision to “go virtual” may soon be prejudged, as Louis Jacobson explains for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball:
The Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, who headed the 2008 and 2016 Democratic conventions, told Sabato’s Crystal Ball that canceling the in-person convention is “a rising possibility, especially now that the Olympics are postponed for a year. It will be difficult to justify gathering 50,000 people in one place when the very next week it would have been the Olympics and they’ve been canceled.”
If some positive event occurs, such as a very early vaccine or drastically improved testing, “then maybe an in-person convention can be pulled off successfully,” said Colorado State University political scientist Kyle Saunders. However, he added, “I have to think a convention is unlikely if we are assessing things today.”
Among the countless factors to consider are whether hotels near the convention site will be open and staffed. That’s unclear for now.
Daughtry figures the practical deadline for pulling the plug on a live convention — which would require a DNC bylaw change to allow voting by proxy — is around June 1. Since the earliest date on which a candidate (presumably Joe Biden) could definitively nail down the nomination and take control of the convention is now June 2, the time to really figure this all out is now.
One option, of course, is to kick the can down the road by postponing the convention for a bit, as Joe Biden has suggested as a possibility. But that may simply delay an inevitable decision against taking the risk of a big in-person gathering.
What would a virtual convention look like? Probably like the media show conventions were already beginning to resemble anyway:
A remote convention could be structured around a series of events on broadcast and social media, Saunders said.
“You could do speeches and floor votes, with watch parties at local and state party headquarters,” Saunders said. “That could be a unifying, positive event that builds party rapport and purpose — if the parties could find a way to pull it off.”
The official business conducted at the convention — the certification of the delegates, the passage of convention rules, and the nomination of the presidential and vice presidential candidates — can probably be redesigned to be handled online, with appropriate planning, experts said.
I do wonder how the show would be financed, since host cities typically raise a ton of money for the conventions. But presumably the reduced need for facilities and staff would reduce costs, too.
The Republican convention scheduled for Charlotte is set to begin six full weeks after the first real or virtual gavel drops for the Democrats. So far, there’s much less talk about this event being virtual, in part because the star of that show won’t allow it.
“No way I’m going to cancel the convention,” Trump has told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “We’re going to have the convention, it’s going to be incredible.”
If Republicans are lucky and enough progress is made against the pandemic so that a massive gathering of people is possible by the third week in August, the GOP might harvest the kind of traditional “post-convention bump” that a virtual Democratic event may have trouble generating. But more likely, both parties will go virtual, which could mean the end of old-school conventions for good:
It’s possible, said Saunders. If a retooled online convention “worked and was successful, it could well kill off the traditional conventions forever. They would still happen, but as ‘internet events,’” he said …
“I love the pageantry, but after this, there will be some questions,” [Daughtry] said. “What you need to get done you can do in three hours. The rest is a show. So the question people will ask is, why are we doing this for four days? Can we do it in one day? Is the time and expense worth it?”
And will media continue to cover it all so extensively? Probably not. Before long, national party conventions will likely become a relic of the past like the multi-ballot conventions of yore with their favorite-son candidates, hour-long demonstrations, and big platform fights. Some of us may miss them, but when it comes to the pain and dislocations wrought by this pandemic, the damage to conventions will be strictly collateral.