A Forced Yet Overdue Transformation of the Democratic and Republican Party Conventions

I was in the middle of a roaring mass of 50,000 Democratic leaders, donors, activists, political junkies and journalists sardined into a Philadelphia stadium, jumping up and down, waving signs, crying and yelling “I’m with her! I’M WITH HER!” Hillary Clinton was just officially nominated as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, balloons and confetti rained down from the ceiling, the cameras were rolling and the whole world was watching.

There is no political show on earth that compares to the quadrennial U.S. party conventions that are organized to nominate the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates and in these days of social distancing it’s rather difficult to remember how exhilarating it was to be there. The 2016 Democratic Convention was my first experience attending a national political convention and it could very well be my last. Not because I can’t get on a plane or get my hands on a press pass, but because like so many other live, crowded events, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the nominating conventions and it’s entirely possible they will be changed forever.

To further complicate things, Trump has politicized the pandemic, turning social distancing and the wearing of masks into ideological symbols. Until recently, the Democratic and Republican conventions were looking like they would reflect the politics of the Coronavirus: Republicans were sticking their plans for the traditional, massive, in-person affair while Democrats are preparing for something radically reduced with online participation. However, as confirmed COVID-19 cases have surged around the country, Trump finally accepted the grim reality that cramming thousands of people into a stadium would present and Republicans are now also racing against the clock to plan a more distanced and online convention.

How did these political conventions become the enormous spectacle that they are today? Do they even matter? Will the COVID-19 change them forever?

Nominating the party’s candidate

The purpose of the conventions is to nominate the party’s presidential candidate and like the nominating process itself, they are not subject to constitutional or federal law, but rather are traditions that have evolved over time. The first national party convention took place in Baltimore in September of 1831 and was organized by the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party. While the party didn’t survive past 1838, the convention did because the Democrats and the National Republicans were quick to recognize that an event of this kind could be useful so both parties held conventions, again in Baltimore, before the presidential election of 1832.

The usefulness came from the fact that the parties were growing in size and importance. There was no Zoom back then nor even phones, just snail mail (which was known simply as mail) so they had a real need to meet in-person for campaign planning and coordination. They also needed a more formal process for nominating presidential candidates, which, up until then were chosen via caucusing among very small groups of elite party leaders. This old system was fine for widely agreed upon leaders such as George Washington but became more difficult as politics became more divided over issues such as trade, relations with Europe, and slavery. While the conventions didn’t solve all their challenges, they provided a mechanism to formalize nominating process, allowing their members across the country to participate.

These early conventions were quite different from the ones we know now: delegates weren’t bound to vote one way or another, making these raucous affairs with outcomes that were far from the predictable. The Democratic Convention of 1844 produced two firsts: the first surprise winner, James Polk, won over former president Martin Van Buren, and the first telegraph was sent to Polk to tell him the good news. Then, as now, it was considered unseemly for the candidates themselves to attend the convention and they stayed away until it was time to give an acceptance speech. The telegraph dominated convention communication over the following decades until the much cheaper and reliable telephone came along and became the preferred form of communication beginning in the 1912 conventions. It allowed for more fluid communication and strategizing between candidates and their allies at the convention.

Conventions and new communication technology to sell the party to the American people

In 1916, new communication technology was used for more than just behind the scenes strategizing, it was used to bring the convention to citizens around the country. Woodrow Wilson’s acceptance speech was both filmed and recorded on a phonograph, entering into an era of allowing the conventions to reach wider audiences. The 1924 conventions went much further in this direction, being the first ones to be broadcast live by radio. This represented a profound shift in the purpose of these conventions, from a series of internal deliberations to a public campaign, projecting the party’s values, policy positions and messages to the greater electorate.

This campaign role continued to grow. In 1940, the Republican Convention was the first to be broadcast on television, but it wasn’t until 1952 with the candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower, and the first TV advertisements, that television became the king of campaign communication. By then, enough households, 34%, had TVs to make it relevant and as this increased to 72% in 1956, so did interest in the conventions. The great convention show as we know it was born.

By 1972, the nominating process became the one we still use today: one that meanders around the country and voters select convention delegates who are bound to their votes. This makes the actual nominating process a foregone conclusion and therefore, the excitement centers more around the speeches made for prime-time television. Many of these speeches have turned up and coming politicians into household names, with perhaps the most notable example being Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech. Other memorable speeches include Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” speech at the Republican Convention in 2012 or Pat Buchanan’s “Cultural War … for the Soul of America,” Republican Convention speech in 1992.

The conventions have gone beyond simply bringing party leaders together to select a candidate and hammer out a platform to become important parts of the campaigns themselves and the polling backs this up. There’s the famous post-convention 5–10% bump in the national polls that candidates experience.

2020 Democratic Convention August 17–20 “A convention across America”

The Democrats will hold their convention August 17–20 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the week before the Republican convention, because traditionally, the party that doesn’t occupy the White House always goes first. It was originally scheduled for July 13–16th but they postponed it as far into August as possible in order to have time to make a new plan. In what appears to be the turning of lemons into lemonade, they are billing it as “Anchored in Milwaukee, 2020 Democratic National Convention will be a ‘Convention Across America’” that “will engage and unite more Americans than ever before.”

How will they do this? This story has been a moving target since June as plans have gotten more and more restrictive. “We kept trying,” said Joe Solmonese, the convention’s CEO but finally, during a conference call on August 4, organizers were forced to face the grim reality of COVID-19 and wipe out the last bit of in-person activity: no speakers, not even Joe Biden, will go to Milwaukie.

But they really did try. First, the nearly 4,000 delegates were originally advised to stay home but not required. Also, there were plans to hold smaller events around the country that they and others could participate in but those got scrapped as well. Fortunately, party approved a plan in June to allow delegates to vote remotely, so at least they’ve had time to put this system into place.

How this all plays out on TV will still be critical and Ricky Kirshner, who has worked on every Democratic Convention since 1992 and has produced the Super Bowl halftime shows since 2007, is leading the programming production, which they have also pared down to two prime-time hours per night, instead of the usual three. What most people don’t see is that there are usually another 2–3 hours of speeches before the conventions get televised. Those of us in the press section would tap away on our laptops with one ear semi-tuned into anything interesting that might come up, but mostly, these speeches were endless and not all that useful, except to give that person an audience. So, for many, this less is more approach is welcome.

The speakers line-up was announced on August 10 and is also a departure from the usual. Viewers will not only hear from Democratic leaders and politicians, but also from “individuals from all walks of life, political affiliations and every corner of the country who support Joe Biden’s vision to lead us out of Trump’s chaos and crises.” Much of this will come from videos that people have submitted to the #IKnowJoe campaign over the last few months that asked them to record their stories.

Since Biden announced his choice of Senator Kamala Harris as his VP, the schedule has changed to have her speaking on Wednesday evening just ahead of former President Barack Obama instead of Thursday.

The convention will be live-streamed across multiple platforms as well as the usual TV networks and the party has put together a digital toolkit to make the convention experience more interactive for viewers, not to mention, amplify party messages across the social media. No doubt, organizers are leaving some surprises for the convention itself, but it does look to be a real break from the past and much more inclusive.

Republican Convention August 24–27 from “a risk you have to take” to a scaled back affair with the theme “Honoring Our Great American Story”

Trump thrives on big rowdy rallies so it’s not surprising that he and Republican convention organizers held on to this plan as long as they possibly could. It’s even somewhat understandable given Biden’s solid lead in the polling, especially in the swing states. As recent as early July, some Republicans were describing an in-person convention as “a risk you have to take.” At that point, convention organizers had moved the bigger speeches and rallies to Jacksonville, Florida because leaders from the Charlotte, North Carolina, the official convention site, have balked at holding crowded in-person events while Coronavirus numbers have been surging.

Trump abruptly called off the parts of the convention that would take place in Florida on July 23, saying that “it’s Not the Right Time.” According to the New York Times, the timing had to do with the Party needing to book hotel rooms and sign other service agreements. This has already been a financial fiasco for both Charlotte and Jacksonville, compounding existing economic woes.

All this has not only made describing the upcoming Republican convention difficult to report on, but also difficult to plan. As of the time of writing, Republicans were planning to bring just 336 delegates to Charlotte, along with some party officials for a total of 500 people in order to do official party business. They will be given swab tests beforehand and will be required to wear masks and use badges with Bluetooth technology to track their movements and make any necessary contact tracing easier. Still, the conventions health consultant Jeffry Runge told NPR that “it is still a high-risk event.”

Trump himself will also stay away but will be present every night, a great departure from convention tradition of not focusing on the nominee until the last day. There will be speeches each night from federal properties such as the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Fort McHenry and Trump will give his acceptance speech from somewhere in the White House. A week ago, he floated the idea of giving his acceptance speech from the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg, where a turning point battle in the Civil War took place and also remembered for Lincoln’s famous address. This is, of course, emotionally fraught and drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Most presidents have sought to maintain a separation between their governing role in the White House and their role as a campaigning candidate and therefore do not use the White House for campaign activities. But Further, experts say that using these properties for the convention would be a breach of ethics and even the Hatch Act because he would be conducting partisan business on federal property.

Either way, we still don’t know a whole lot about Republican plans to enhance this reduced convention in terms of television production and digital participation. The Trump campaign, however, still has huge fundraising and digital campaign advantages over Biden’s and will surely be able to find ways to make the most of it, even with so little time.

Changed forever?

It’s hard to imagine that some or even most of this change won’t stick. In his Washington Post column, longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove argued that the conventions were already getting “long in the tooth” and that it’s time to reinvent them. With the candidates already chosen and VPs announced, the roll call vote of delegates is a mere formality and a boring one that takes hours. They have become very expensive TV studios and even at that, the major TV networks typically only dedicate an hour of coverage to them per night because they just don’t draw big audiences. Of course, one doesn’t need a TV to watch, just a device and an internet connection. Making them shorter on speeches and more interactive might just breathe new life into them.

Another likely lesson is that there is no need to bring delegates together in the future. It’s true that being a delegate at a party convention is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience: delegates occupy the convention floor where A-list politicians mill around and take selfies with them. They get access to parties and meetings with the candidate they are there to support. But it’s also a very costly experience that delegates themselves must pay for and not everyone has that kind of cash.

Quite possibly, the outcome will be to use technology to bring political conventions closer to their goal of including all party supporters in a conversation about and celebration of their values and candidates. The pandemic might just have a silver lining of making U.S. party politics a little more democratic.

This article was published in Spanish on esglobal.

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