As Democrats openly — and Republicans more covertly — consider holding virtual national conventions in August, the general assumption has been that it would be a diminished event that no one would voluntarily hold.
This week, Texas Democrats are holding their own virtual convention that they believe may show that less is more: that the virtual format can enable them to prepare their party more effectively for November than a live event, and create a template for the party conventions of the post-pandemic future.
The convention will be made available via two digital channels: one devoted to the sometimes boring but essential party business that is conducted at annual conventions, and the other to the speeches, messaging, and entertainment that make party conventions an effective “infomercial.” The latter channel will get a lot of attention as the locus for speeches throughout the week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, vice-presidential prospects Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and former presidential candidates from Texas Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is slated to speak next Saturday, June 6.
This public-facing channel will also provide a convenient outlet for fundraising appeals and party outreach efforts. But the other channel, a sort of digital home for the nearly 12,000 official convention delegates, will focus not only on “convention business,” but on general election preparations, in a less expensive and more transparent version of what live conventions normally do in hotel or civic center conference rooms.
One particularly important chore the virtual convention will actually make easier is pre-general election volunteer training. As the state party’s Voter Expansion director Luke Warford explained to me, Texas’s voter-unfriendly laws on registration efforts have a highly restrictive training requirement for volunteer “deputy registrars.” It’s actually easier to do the training virtually, and the infrastructure being built for the convention is conducive to that sort of labor-intensive but crucial chore. Already Democrats are close to meeting their goal of a thousand participants in their convention-based training to become state-recognized deputy registrars.
“It’s a concrete example of how we can reach out to and help mobilize people who might not have been able to attend an in-person convention,” said Warford.
That’s a big deal in a year when harvesting demographic trends to change the shape of the electorate is the ball game for Texas Democrats, and could tilt the national landscape if and when it becomes seriously competitive (the state has more electoral votes than Michigan and Pennsylvania combined).
While the Texas Democrats’ virtual convention is a bit of an experiment that the DNC and other state parties are watching closely, it’s likely to become a success by normal standards. As Texas Democratic Party communications director Abhi Rahman told me, the event has already been paid for and will command six-figure viewership, if not more. There’s no real reason to go back to an in-person event in the future.
Texas Republicans, as it happens, are still planning an entirely in-person state convention for Houston on July 16 to 18, reflecting the national GOP’s commitment to set a “reopening” example by ignoring public-health injunctions against large gatherings. There is a lot of risk associated with this approach, which could produce either a sparsely attended, low-excitement convention or worse yet, a super-spreader event illustrating why big crowded conventions full of sweaty cheering partisans are just a terrible idea.
Risks aside, Republicans in the Lone Star State are also passing up on some of the efficiencies they could achieve by going virtual in order to show how little they are interested in accommodating themselves to the present, not to mention the future.
As Democrat Warford noted, they’re planning an event that “is right from a public safety perspective, but that also makes sense from a strategic point of view.”
I am a bit nonobjective on this subject, having argued for years now that the national political convention as we know it needs to go away. If it can be established this year that the essential business of such gatherings can be done virtually at less cost, with far less risk to public safety, and with all sorts of additional advantages in general election preparation, then there may be no rational argument for going back to a model that hasn’t made sense for years. And if Texas turns blue in November, its Democratic Party and its state convention proceedings may truly represent the “new normal.”