The parallel universes of the Democratic and Republican Conventions
Would it surprise you if I said that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have some common qualities? Maybe, maybe not, but here it is anyway: they both sell themselves as fighters for the working class and they both are politicians that make decisions with their guts. Also, both tend to look at foreign affairs as being about developing personal relationships with world leaders, although they have different sets of world leader friends.
Despite all this, the Democrats and Republicans presented stark differences between these two men in their conventions that have taken place over the past two weeks. You may have been on vacation or simply had little interest in the nearly 20 hours of televised speeches, videos and posturing aimed at revving up the party faithful. Here are my seven take-aways after watching all of it.
1) Messaging. The parties presented the two parallel universes that exist inside the U.S., one Democratic and one Republican. The Democrats argued that Biden is a decent guy and Trump is a danger to democracy. The Republicans asserted that Trump isn’t racist, and that Biden is a trojan horse for the extreme left socialists.
2) Truth. Who is correct? Well, we can trust our own experiences of the past nearly four years of Trump’s administration. We can also take a look at the New York Times fact-checkers who found three misleading statements throughout the entire Democratic Convention as opposed to five false and twelve misleading statements in just the fourth night of the Republican Convention. Yet for most Americans, who you believe depends on which party you’ve aligned yourself with, it’s a little like watching football, you root for your team.
3) The handling of the pandemic is of course, the biggest issue on Americans’ minds and is largely responsible for Biden’s stable 8–9 point lead in the national polls since mid-June. He assured Democrats that “it didn’t have to be this bad.” Trump, on the other hand, bragged about doing more testing than any other country and fast-tracking vaccine research and new treatments. He said “To save as many lives as possible, we are focusing on the science, the facts, and the data.” This so wildly untrue that it makes anyone other than his loyal supporters laugh.
4) Black lives matter vs. law and order. The other issue that has dragged Trump down in the polls is the Black lives matter protests. The police brutality and systematic racism behind these protests was a central focus of the Democrats while the Republicans mostly ignored this and focused on the violence in cities, emphasizing that this is happening in cities run by Democrats. This “law and order” message reminiscent of Nixon’s 1968 campaign is an attempt to bring back suburban women, who are critical voters, by saying that they will keep them safe. These are powerful issues for both parties and will remain a huge focus in the coming weeks.
Besides messaging, the pandemic forced massive change on these normally raucous, crowded, quadrennial political spectacles, but this change was long overdue, and I believe much of it is here to stay.
1) More time=higher production values. The Democrats pushed back their original convention date by four weeks and used that time well. But because Trump really wanted an in-person convention, the Republicans stuck to their dates and ended up having to plan a mostly virtual event in about two weeks. This showed in a few ways. Democrats had a lot more professionally produced videos that provided many of the emotional high points and told important personal and policy narratives. The Republicans mostly relied on speeches in the beautiful yet very formal and echoic Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Democrats made their speeches from their living rooms or even kitchens, which provided some intimacy. These style differences may very well have appealed to each party’s base.
2) Less is more, or, the death of the long political speech. Democrats cut the usually three-hour affair down to two and kept the speeches really, really short. The best example of this is that Biden’s acceptance speech on the final night of the convention was about 25 minutes long while Trump’s rambled on for about 70 minutes. Republicans stuck to a more traditional format of long speeches at mostly the same podium and each evening wore on for about two and a half to three hours. The TV networks typically only show the last hour of each convention night anyway, even though it looks like more and more viewers are watching online.
3) Show-me-don’t-tell-me moments. Most conventions are about telling us about the candidate, but this virtual format allowed them to show us, which is infinitely more convincing. Biden did zoom-like chats with regular people, showing that he is the kind of man who asks questions and listens. Trump performed a naturalization ceremony and pardoned Jon Ponder. There were accusations of the Republicans using these people are props and also the unethical use of the White House and other federal properties, but no doubt, they were powerful moments.
No doubt, the success of these conventions is very much in the eye of the beholder. Democrats loved theirs as did Republicans. So the most interesting bit about 2020 is whether it will indeed change conventions and political communication in the long run.
This op-ed was published in Spanish in El Español.