intelligencer chats

Are Democrats Pulling Off Their Reimagined Convention?

Michelle Obama delivered a pretaped speech that aired Monday night. Photo: Handout/DNCC via Getty Images

As with so much else during the coronavirus era, the first night of the Zoom-heavy Democratic National Convention took some getting used to. But it also featured some memorable moments that would have been impossible in a normal year. I spoke with political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti to get a sense of how the party feels about night one, and where things are headed over the next three days.

Ben: Thanks to COVID-19, Democrats went from their plan for a packed convention in Milwaukee to what Twitter joked looked kind of like an Eva Longoria–hosted telethon. On night one of the reimagined event, there were a lot of regular-person testimonies, a moving montage about people lost to the virus, a section featuring Republicans voting for Trump (most prominently 2016 candidate John Kasich), some rather strange musical performances, and, at the end, two powerhouse speeches by Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama. Do you get the sense that the party is okay with how this is turning out so far?

Gabriel: Yes, definitely. I think an important point to remember about the Biden operation has always been its studied ignoring of basically anything said on Twitter, ever. (Some people in his orbit say that’s why he won the primary.) All the online griping that we saw early on about the weird infomercial vibe, etc., was pretty insider-y, and ignored the fact that the vast majority of voters simply don’t pay attention to these things, and definitely not the beginning-of-the-evening stuff. But even before we get to the late speeches, there’s something worth dissecting about the format of the early programming that has Democrats feeling somewhat good, or at least intrigued about where the evening’s speeches could go. What I mean is, because most of the content wasn’t a predictable procession of live podium speeches, they could create some interesting-ish videos and clips that they can share with targeted audiences for a while, without peoples’ eyes glazing over at just another speech. That’s one thing.

There’s also the fact that they managed to somewhat coherently fit John Kasich and Bernie Sanders into one night, even when they at times seemed to be saying pretty opposed things. (Kasich: Biden is a moderate! He won’t be swayed! Bernie: Uh, we’re gonna sway him, we already have.) And, finally, there’s the reality that what most folks will be talking about from this evening — aside from the one very affecting video from a woman whose father, a Trump supporter, died of the virus — were the obviously powerful speeches from Sanders and, more prominently, Michelle Obama, whose address — straight to camera, living room to living room — was one of the most memorable in convention history.

Ben: Our colleague Ed Kilgore wrote that it seemed as though Dems packed their entire argument against Trump into one night, like they weren’t sure a big audience would be tuning in again. But I imagine there’s a lot more to come on that score. How conscious are the higher-ups about balancing the voluminous case against the president with the positive one for Biden?

Gabriel: Very conscious, but I was actually struck by how present Biden was in this programming. Usually the nominee is basically a ghost throughout the first nights of their conventions, only to appear with a bang at the end. But clips of Biden were threaded throughout the evening, so he was never far from the point. As for the case against Trump, well, that’s basically the central thrust of Biden’s entire pitch. So I suspect we’re going to see a ton more of it tonight. And tomorrow. And the day after. And for the next two and a half months. I mean, why wouldn’t we? I agree with Ed, however, about the front-loading. Because there’s no certainty at all about what viewership will look like for a convention like this, they clearly found it important to pack a “unity-against-THAT” message, composed of four or five different sub-messages, into Day One. Doing that without falling into incoherence is no small task.

Ben: Some of us at Intelligencer were having a healthy debate about how effective the Republican-apostate section of the evening was. You had former elected officials (and candidates) like Kasich, who gave a pretty impassioned plea about what’s at stake in 2020. And then there were a few non-famous people who voted for Trump and now see him for what he is, and will be voting Biden in November. (I believe there are also ads running to this effect.) To what extent does Team Biden believe that some Republicans can be convinced by hearing other Republicans talk about their regrets? And will this come at the expense of messaging aimed at Biden’s left flank?

Gabriel: Their primary goal here isn’t really to win over wide swaths of Republicans as much as it is to demonstrate to suburban white voters — often women — who have voted for the GOP in the past that there’s a way to vote for Biden that’s politically “acceptable.” Biden’s done pretty well with these voters, who are often the kinds of people who can’t stand Trump but are very, very wary of Sanders-style politics. Obviously this isn’t the Democratic base, and I’d be very surprised if they kept pushing with this kind of messaging for the rest of the week. But clearly their calculus is that they are in a better position to win over some of these potential former Trump supporters — or, likely, 2016 nonvoters — than they are in danger of losing progressives. Many on the left, obviously, are very wary of Biden and have been for a long time. But you saw Sanders make an extremely explicit case last night about why they need to vote for Biden, and the nominee’s team thinks that’s going to happen.

Are Democrats Pulling Off Their Reimagined Convention?