MILWAUKEE – There is no modern precedent in American politics for the two parties to stage national conventions with radically different formats in the same year.
But that’s a very real prospect in 2020 and a special challenge for Democrats, who are the party out of power, hold their convention first and unlike the GOP are openly entertaining a heavily “virtual” gathering in August because of the pandemic.
Will a “Milwaukee” convention that is partly, mostly or entirely remote put the party and presumptive nominee Joe Biden at a political disadvantage?
“This is all about how many people you can reach,” said David Axelrod, who was Barack Obama’s chief political strategist and directs the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.
Axelrod outlined several political challenges that could come with a heavily remote Democratic convention: projecting energy around Biden at a time when he has been largely home-bound during the coronavirus pandemic; avoiding the perception that the party is "somehow not as eager to open things up"; and attracting the same kind of viewership for a virtual event that a traditional convention draws.
“Though (Biden has) been in politics for a long time, there’s relatively little information about him (for some voters). A convention with a large TV audience is a chance for him to provide that,” Axelrod said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Biden needs that.”
But he and other Democrats argued that reinventing the national convention, scheduled for the week of Aug. 17 in Milwaukee, carries an opportunity for the party as well.
“It’s not just going to be a bunch of politicians bloviating," Axelrod said. "You’d mix in a lot more creative (content) and music and film, and it could be a much more compelling few hours of programming."
The political significance of contrasting convention formats may go beyond any differences in viewership. It would also send a message about how Democrats and Republicans view the pandemic.
“You know the contrast will be stark visually,” said the Rev. Leah Daughtry, who was the CEO of the Democratic National Convention in both 2008 and the 2016.
She said a re-imagined pandemic-era convention would signal that Democrats "have adjusted (to the crisis). We recognize people have concerns about their health, their parents’ health, and all is not well in America yet — versus the other side which is just acting like nothing’s happening. That’s a huge opportunity.”
Republicans say the gap between the two gatherings, now scheduled one week apart, will be unflattering to Biden.
"The contrast is going to be extremely clear," said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for Trump Victory, the joint campaign effort of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.
"It will be excitement and enthusiasm and energy around President Trump and then a flat, no-impact, quasi-event around Joe Biden, which is the real problem that the Democrats have right now — no energy," he said. "This is not the candidate that fired up their grassroots."
With so many unknowns, the 2020 conventions are a bigger election wild card than usual.
National GOP chair Ronna McDaniel reiterated this week that Republicans "will not be holding a virtual convention" and will gather in Charlotte as planned Aug. 24-27.
Gorka said that while the pandemic is fluid, "we're still full steam ahead ... President Trump has said he's a traditionalist and he wants to be there."
But Democrats are planning for a range of scenarios that include a partly, mostly or fully virtual gathering.
Many party insiders expect a hybrid event, where some but not all delegates will travel to Milwaukee and some but not all speakers will appear before a live audience in the city.
Biden told WISN-TV Wednesday he doesn't know whether he'll come to Milwaukee to accept the nomination.
"I hope there is a convention in Milwaukee," he said. "It may not be as robust a convention. It may be a social distancing thing. It may be smaller. I don’t know."
'Less and less of a news event'
Conventions are unique one-sided opportunities for parties to tell their story and launch their nominee. They usually produce a polling “bounce,” though it's often short-lived and sometimes neutralized by the other party's convention.
A key question looming over a virtual convention is whether it would attract the television coverage and “eyeballs” that an in-person convention would.
“The conventions for a long time have become less and less of a news event. Less news happens there," said Mark Lukasiewicz, the former senior vice president of NBC News Specials, the division that produces convention coverage for the network.
"It has become more and more of a political show. It has become more and more difficult for news operations to justify the enormous amount of money they spend there to conduct real journalism around what’s going on.”
The networks have woven their own extensive reporting, interviews and commentary around the parties’ scripted program, making use of the visual backdrop of the host state and city, a parade of political talking heads all gathered in one place and the trappings and color of a quadrennial partisan pep rally.
But if you’re getting what is essentially a “a live-stream from a political party,” then “any pretense of ‘I’m going to talk to important people around the edges’ has disappeared. … All of that atmosphere goes away,” said Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University in New York.
The old understandings between the parties and networks about how much of the convention is aired live and unfiltered in prime time may be up in the air.
“If this is just going to be (just) a livestream … the news divisions are going to be a little befuddled about how to deal with that,” Lukasiewicz said.
At the same time, the broadcast networks will still feel an obligation to provide similar levels of coverage, even if the two events take on much different forms, he said.
'Entirely new and different'
A mostly virtual convention could put a massive premium on the effectiveness on the “show” that Democrats put together.
This one will be overseen by Ricky Kirschner, a veteran of the Tony Awards and Super Bowl Halftime Show who has produced all the party’s recent conventions.
What that will look like is unclear. But analysts say lessons can be drawn from other entertainment projects in the pandemic, from the NFL Draft to the April prime time special featuring Lady Gaga and others that celebrated COVID-19 health care workers: "One World: Together at Home."
(Commentator David S. Bernstein suggested recently that Biden abandon any vestige of a normal in-person convention and go full “Gaga” with an online event “that is entirely new and different”).
One hope for Democrats: If the pandemic is still keeping tens of millions of Americans at home in August, a captive audience could help stem a drop-off in convention viewership.
“We’re at a point where a lot of people are still primarily at home and it’s been a golden age of these live TV events,” said Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari, who joked that the last time before the coronavirus crisis that she had watched live TV on a Saturday night “was probably 1997.”
"Listen, if things are still the same way are they are now, who isn’t tethered to their television? There is nothing else to do," said Daughtry, a former chief of staff for the Democratic National Committee. "Of course, (reporters) are going to cover it, and the newness of it and what will the show look like? Who is in person? Who is virtual? What does virtual mean? What is the showmanship and craftsmanship on display?
"That will be new and be the first time we’ve done it that way."
There are plenty of potential losers in a mostly remote convention. Azari, who studies political parties, said it could limit the ability of minority factions in the party (such as Bernie Sanders' supporters) to command attention and leverage their voice.
The City of Milwaukee could lose most of the economic and public relations benefits of a traditional convention. The political symbolism for Democrats of hosting their convention in a critical Midwest battleground could be diminished.
State Democratic chair Ben Wikler said he was confident the convention can still be “Wisconsin-y” without a full physical presence.
“Wisconsin is a thread that will be woven in at every step,” said Wikler, who bashed the GOP’s plans for a more traditional gathering in Charlotte, calling it a “disaster for any party to defy the warnings of epidemiologists and risk hosting a super-spreader event in order to create something for television.”
GOP spokesman Gorka called that criticism "silly" and said it ignores the fact Republicans will be taking precautions and working with state and local officials to stage a "safe and exciting event."
'Everything hinges on the technology'
The “business side” of the convention (platform, rules, nominations, etc.) poses challenges, too. Democrats have already taken steps to enable remote voting and ensure that delegates can participate either in person or remotely. But how the nomination roll-call will work is unclear.
State parties have already been tackling some of these issues. New Hampshire Democrats held a virtual state convention earlier this month with all delegates and speakers participating remotely.
Followers on Facebook Live offered their comments online as they heard from state Democrats and guest speaker Stacy Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 and is viewed as a possible vice presidential pick.
“With an online event, everything hinges on the technology working,” said the state party’s communications director, Holly Shulman (which it did, she said). Wisconsin will hold its virtual state convention next month.
Texas, which has the largest Democratic gathering after the national convention, is holding a virtual convention at the beginning of June after scrapping its plans for a physical gathering in San Antonio.
“Our digital people are working 24/7,” said Texas state chair Gilberto Hinojosa, who expects more than 8,000 delegates to participate.
“You’ll actually have more participants because everything is digital, but there are glitches” that can happen, he said. One tiny example: his wife didn’t receive her convention ballot initially because it was emailed to someone else with the same name.
Hinojosa said that lost in a virtual convention will be the “huge noise, big screens, people walking up and giving booming speeches — the excitement of lots of people that gets a lot of coverage.”
But “we don’t have a choice here,” he said. And “this kind of gets our people thinking” about what needs to be done in a 2020 campaign that will have to be more digital because of the pandemic.
Milwaukee convention planners say they’re watching as some 20 state parties go virtual with their annual gatherings, but their challenges are fundamentally different, especially because of the massive viewership needs of a national convention.
“Look, there is a kind of bandwagon mentality and energy that comes from large crowds cheering on the candidate. That is a loss,” said Axelrod. “Biden is limited in his movements and he doesn’t have an official role at a time when the president is trying to make the argument that Biden doesn’t have the energy. That’s a concern … so what you produce has to be really brimming with energy, even if it’s not live.”
At the same time, a more traditional GOP convention may look foolish in these times to some voters, Axelrod said. “We’ll see how that all turns out.”
Asked if there is any precedent for two parties holding such very different modes of convention, political scientist Byron Shafer paused before reaching back to the year 1872, when the much-weakened post-Civil War Democratic Party simply endorsed another party’s presidential candidate at its six-hour convention (the shortest ever) without even adopting its own platform.
“There is no sensible prior analog” to the contrasting conventions that may be held in 2020, said Shafer, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who writes about conventions. “If the Democrats are all virtual and the Republicans are all live (and in person), we really don’t have anything to compare that to.”