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The Democratic National Convention is one month out and a few days later Republicans will follow with their own controversial version. But in the face of a highly contagious and deadly virus, both parties have struggled to reimagine and quickly execute their landmark events which typically involve arenas full of people, hundreds of crowded soirees, and political celebrities galore.
Coronavirus-induced reckonings have put everything from office life to fashion week under a microscope, and now it’s the political convention’s turn. The extreme pivots and sudden reduction in quadrennial glamour raise the obvious questions: Do we really need these political summits? Or at the very least, do we need them to be multi-day lavish media events?
Conventions are planned years in advance, cost millions of dollars and employ full staffs to pull off a series of events that envelop and involve an entire city, culminating in a highly-publicized presidential nomination. This time around, Republicans were planning to take over Charlotte, North Carolina where they expected about 50,000 visitors, 15,000 members of the media, 2,500 delegates, and 3,200 events. The RNC had hoped to raise about $70 million in funding and to attract 8,000 volunteers to ensure that everything ran smoothly.
Democrats had planned attractions of a similar size in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
But that’s not happening anymore.
This time around, the fat will be trimmed. Superfluous expo halls and open bars will likely be shuttered. The conventions will return to their original purpose: Setting the party platform for the years to come and nominating the next presidential candidate (at least for Democrats, they will).
Democrats plan to make their event mostly virtual and are telling delegates to stay home and cancel any planned travel to the rust-belt swing state.
Republicans, meanwhile, have hastily moved their convention to Jacksonville, Florida because of restrictions on large events put in place by North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. They still intend to have some big events, but not nearly as large as originally planned. They’ll also hold some parts of the convention in North Carolina because they signed a contract saying that they would. The multi-state hodgepodge won’t be the well-oiled jamboree that was 2-plus years in the making.
Many Republicans, worried about the potential spread of COVID-19, say they’ll sit this one out. Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley, 86, and Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, 80, are skipping. “I’m not going to go. And I’m not going to go because of the virus situation,” Grassley said in a call with reporters last week. This will be the first time in 40 years that Grassley has skipped a convention.
Judi Bosworth, a 72-year-old Democratic delegate from North Hempstead, New York said that party officials conducted a video call with all potential attendees outlining how they would be able to vote online earlier this month. The call, she said, was “very organized,” and the “tech was flawless,” which ended any unease about potential problems at the convention itself.
Bosworth, who serves as her town supervisor and has been a delegate at the past two conventions, told Fortune that she didn’t feel like she would be missing out on in-person festivities and instead felt a sense of “pride” and “community” in knowing that her assumed presidential nominee Joe Biden valued her health.
“Ultimately, this is showing Biden to be the leader that he is. The compassionate, kind, caring person who understands the most important thing is that our country and its residents are safe,” she said.
But Biden currently leads in polling by an average of nearly nine points, and he’s retained that lead while keeping his head relatively low through the election season. A smaller convention without as much press won’t hurt him, it’s in line with the status quo of his campaign thus far.
The Democratic convention, with the increased volume of progressive voices like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may actually work to highlight divisions in the party, and so less stage time and smaller events work in the favor of an image of a cohesive party, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican operative and media analyst.
“Biden is walking a tightrope in his party between the Bernie Sanders wing and more moderate Democrats,” he said. “The virtual convention appeases both sides and decreases potential drama.”
There’s no serious need for a message to be amplified when the party is already leading so significantly, said O’Connell. Republicans, however, view the convention as an essential piece of their strategy to get reelected in November.
News about the spread of COVID-19 is clearly not working in President Donald Trump’s favor, nearly 60% of the country disapproves of his response to the crisis. And while hosting what could easily become a superspreader event in a state that has seen its virus rate repeatedly hit record highs would seemingly be a bad decision, O’Connell says that Trump sees it as his only chance to break through the news cycle.
“If Florida is going to open its schools in the Fall, Republicans can have a convention there,” he said. “Republicans are having trouble getting their political message across and breaking through the COVID-19 news cycle. They want to re-energize and present what they stand for to the country before Labor Day.”
The president thrives in large arenas where he can relay his message to his fans and collect heaps of earned media, it was the secret sauce to his 2016 win and it’s no longer possible, said O’Connell. He needs the convention to “find his mojo” and the Republican party needs it to try to sell their platform to the American people.
This upcoming election already shows signs of a lack of voter enthusiasm, said O’Connell. It’s an election where “you don’t have to get someone to vote for you, you have to get them to not vote for the other person.”
People know who President Trump is and what he stands for, he’s well-defined in the American’s mind. And despite his years in the public eye, Joe Biden has recently become less of a known-persona. Republicans, said O’Connell, need this convention to convince voters that Biden isn’t someone they should vote for, to make his persona known as they see it.
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