Just a few weeks ago, the possibility of a contested Democratic presidential nomination seemed very real. Now it’s far off the table. But in place of the fantasy of the first multi-ballot convention since 1952, we’re contemplating the unprecedented nightmare of a convention that cannot be held at all, at least in the sense of a physical gathering of delegates celebrating the coronation of a nominee and the launch of a general election campaign.
The two developments are related in a way. Joe Biden’s sudden progress toward becoming the presumptive nominee means that an authority structure for planning the July convention scheduled for Milwaukee should soon take shape, beyond the powers already exercised by the Democratic National Committee. And as the COVID-19 cases and the public health consequences proliferate, there’s already serious talk about how to hold a virtual convention. After all, if America is about to enter a regimen of “social distancing” for an indefinite period of time, packing thousands of people into a Milwaukee arena for a political convention in July won’t exactly set a good example, even if public health authorities somehow allow it.
A report from the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein last week suggested that contingency discussions are well underway:
[A]s coronavirus has spread and travel restrictions seem likely to be intensified, top officials are wondering whether attendees will or should make it.
The result could be a convention that is not just sparsely attended but one where the act of formally nominating a presidential candidate is thrown into disorder …
According to several top officials, the DNC’s charter and bylaws leave little ambiguity when it comes to the requirement that delegates be physically on site in order to cast their votes. Under Section 11, it states that “Voting by proxy shall not be permitted at the National Convention. Voting by proxy shall otherwise be permitted in Democratic Party affairs only as provided in the Bylaws of the Democratic Party.”
Fortunately, national political conventions are masters of their own rules, so voting by proxy (or remotely) can be legitimized. But however they cast ballots, delegates do still have to be formally elected at the state level, and that process could be undermined by COVID-19 as well:
[S]tate party chairs raised concerns on a conference call with DNC officials that party functions, including the election of delegates to the national convention, could be disrupted or delayed because of coronavirus fears.
“It is serious. The question for state chairs is, look, we all have to put on conventions coming up. Most of the delegates to the national convention are elected at [state] conventions. What happens if state parties have to cancel these events where delegates are elected?” said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and a Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee. “If things continue to evolve, It could dramatically alter the contest and severely hamper Democrats as we try to unify our party.”
All these complications could become, well, even more complicated if Team Biden’s iron control over the convention is challenged via a platform fight or some other symbol of factional rivalry.
Republicans are not immune from the same problems in planning their August convention in Charlotte, though they don’t have to worry about anyone questioning the authority of Trump’s reelection campaign to make all the key decisions.
In the end, we could have conventions this year that complete the evolution of these institutions from unpredictable, deliberative, and sometimes chaotic events to slickly produced television shows for the two parties and their presidential nominees. The main question is whether they will have live delegates as props.