vision 2020

Democrats Planning Convention That Looks Like America: Hunkered Down

Say farewell to the traditional Democratic convention, maybe for good. Photo: Tracie Van Auken/EPA/Shutterstock

Not being bound by its nominee’s obsession with being fêted by a large, sweaty, cheering crowd, Democrats are planning a truly virtual convention in which there’s not much going on in the host city of Milwaukee. Like the thousands of gatherings among Americans being held via Zoom and other technologies, the Democratic National Convention will involve a minimum of personal interaction and a maximum of decentralized strategies for participation, as the New York Times reports:

[O]ne month before the party is set to gather at a convention site smaller than the one originally selected, officials are expecting the quadrennial event to include as few as 300 people — a number that includes not only attendees but members of the news media, security personnel, medical consultants and party workers.

Every aspect of the four-day Democratic National Convention, scheduled to begin Aug. 17, has been scaled back from the ambitions set when Milwaukee was named the host city in March 2019. A program of five to six hours of daily speeches, engineered to entertain delegates in the arena and draw heavy television coverage and headlines for Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his vice-presidential nominee, will be cut down closer to three hours each night. Much of the program is likely to be pretaped videos, according to people familiar with the planning.

Democrats made the key decision to go “virtual” and authorize delegate voting by email in mid-May, at a time when Republicans were still counting on holding a traditional convention in defiance of the coronavirus pandemic (first in Charlotte, North Carolina, and when that state’s governor didn’t swear he’d move heaven and Earth to make Trump’s dreams come true, in Jacksonville, Florida). Once the signal went out that only essential events (like Joe Biden’s acceptance speech) would be held in Milwaukee, all sorts of travel arrangements involving that city were canceled or never made. You get the sense that convention planners gradually came to realize how stripped-down a production they really needed for the “host” city.

Obviously the usual mob of delegates, alternates, state and local party poohbahs, union officials, lobbyists, and media types won’t be in Milwaukee to eat and drink for free and whoop it up for Uncle Joe. In terms of the official proceedings, the big change (other than conducting the actual business of the convention virtually) is that the hundreds of speakers that usually make the stage at a Democratic convention will be home watching the show or perhaps taping remarks that can be edited and shown at the convenience of convention managers. It’s not that big a loss, frankly; most of those speeches in the recent past were conducted in a nearly empty hall in afternoon and early evening sessions that few watched.

Meanwhile, much of the burden of maintaining enthusiasm over the scaled-back event will shift to the state parties:

State parties are trying to find ways to energize their volunteers and reward delegates, with plans in the works for drive-in events and outdoor parties with the convention feed projected onto large screens. Delegations are working together to replace the usual state party breakfasts with regional Zoom events that can draw higher-wattage speakers than small states would have been able to attract on their own.

Both parties are undoubtedly concerned about television coverage of their events, which has been shrinking for years and may truly devolve this year as even the GOP is coming to grips with reality and discouraging heavy attendance in Jacksonville. Assuming Biden unveils his veep choice well before traveling to Milwaukee, about the only gripping drama we can expect at either convention is the possibility of a fiasco in Jacksonville with Trump accepting the GOP nomination before a small outdoor crowd in the middle of a classic Floridian late-summer downpour. There won’t be a lot of must-see TV.

Still, the parties have plenty of time to build their own infrastructures for participation in and dissemination of the spare content of these events. And perhaps COVID-19 is just accelerating the inevitable demise of the traditional convention, those overstuffed and shop-worn rituals that convey the sense that democracy is still mostly a matter of politicians in suits making stilted speeches behind a podium.

For now, though, both conventions reflect the different ways the two parties’ bases are mostly dealing with the pandemic: Democrats hunkered down and following public-health advice, and Republicans hoping they can defy the odds and leave Jacksonville without having created a super-spreader event. From that point of view, the conventions might actually represent should-watch TV.

Democrats Planning Drastically Scaled-Back Convention