Made-for-TV Conventions End Up as Nothing-But-TV in Covid Era
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks as Senator Kamala Harris, right, listens during a campaign event in Delaware, U.S. (Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

Made-for-TV Conventions End Up as Nothing-But-TV in Covid Era

Gone are the balloons and confetti. No colorful hats, no boozy parties and perhaps most notably, no cheering fans. This year’s political conventions have been pared down to the bare essentials amid fear of the coronavirus, swapping a week of festivities for each party with two-dimensional television shows.

Both President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden had planned traditional celebrations in states critical to their electoral fortunes -- the Democrats in Wisconsin, which they need to take back after losing in 2016, and the Republicans in North Carolina, a wavering stronghold they need to maintain.

But with the Covid-19 pandemic not easing as hoped, their plans shrunk -- from packed arenas to smaller groups of delegates, to a series of carefully curated videos watchable on a smartphone.

The Democrats will “gather” for four days and nights beginning Monday to determine the party’s platform and formally nominate Biden and Kamala Harris for president and vice president through a virtual roll call vote.

The Democratic ticket enters convention week ahead in the polls against Trump, both nationally and in battleground states, but won’t get to feed off the energy of a crowd. Both nominees will give speeches, but with little applause for their applause lines.

Each night, during two hours of prime-time programming, viewers will be treated to videos by supporters from around the country, musical guests, a series of speeches by political heavyweights, and perhaps a few “surprise guests” speaking from around the country.

Nightly surprises

Convention planners say they hope to create the element of excitement with some careful stagecraft. Biden will accept the nomination from Wilmington, Delaware, perhaps in front of a socially distant audience that could give off some quiet huzzahs to provide at least a fraction of the give-and-take of a dynamic address.

The Republicans, who hold their convention the week of Aug. 24, are trying to build suspense -- keeping the list of speakers under wraps for now, while teasing that Trump may give his acceptance speech from the White House itself, a major break with norms on the use of government property.

Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the convention would include in-person programming as well as a “nightly surprise.”

“This is the president; he wants people to tune in,” she said on Fox News. “We want to make sure people are watching this convention and hearing this message and I think the nightly surprise is going to make sure that people are watching every single night, and of course Donald Trump gets big ratings, he always has, and this is going to be no exception.”

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, made a similar claim on MSNBC, saying “conventions are television productions” and promising “a great show four nights in a row, highlighting who we are as a nation.”

Biden’s convention will lean on speeches from Democratic heavyweights like Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while offering an online tool kit for supporters to get a small taste of the traditional convention experience from home with downloadable placards, signs and social media filters.

“In the same way that you might see someone on the convention floor with a sign, you can do the same thing this year from your home,” said Lindsay Holst, a senior adviser to the convention. “We want to put the tools in people’s hands to show their enthusiasm.”

TV Evolution

Americans have watched political conventions on national television since Dwight Eisenhower accepted the Republican nomination in 1952.

But the cameras haven’t just documented the conventions, they’ve changed them. In recent decades, the parties have sought to control events like the anti-war protests that famously disrupted the Democrats in Chicago in 1968 by putting up “free-speech zones,” and avoid high-stakes floor fights over the nomination like the ones faced by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter by changing the rules.

As the convention has turned into more of a coronation and an infomercial for the final stretch of the campaign, the nominees have become more slickly packaged, as when the producers of the sitcom “Designing Women” made a 17-minute film to introduce Bill Clinton in 1992.

Still, even as the smoke-filled backrooms of yore gave way to the smoke machine that marked Trump’s entrance in 2016, the convention sites remained important gathering places for party insiders, from the grassroots to top leaders.

That made it a great stage for other politicians to grab a share of the spotlight. Ronald Reagan’s brief remarks at the 1976 Republican convention after losing the primaries to Ford set the stage for his win four years later. A little-known Senate candidate named Barack Obama had a career-making star turn with his speech in 2004. And Texas Senator Ted Cruz famously declined to endorse Trump in his 2016 speech, telling Republicans to “vote your conscience.”

But their speechwriters counted on a live audience -- building applause lines and pauses into the address, and raising the oratory from a whisper to podium-pounding shouts while the crowd leaps to its feet. Not this year. It will be less like a State of the Union and more like an Oval Office address.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for the virtual convention will be for the delegates themselves, party activists and local and state leaders who’ll also be just watching the coverage at home.

“I thought to myself what better experience than to go to Milwaukee and have some beer, wear some silly hats, network, and be a part of history,” said Dia Carabajal, a former city council member from Auburn, New York, and a first-time Democratic delegate. “That’s not going to happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important or interesting.”

Less Swank

The lack of an in-person convention is also a missed opportunity for high-dollar fundraising.

Major corporations typically donate large sums to the convention planning committees in exchange for skyboxes and big signs in front, while big donors nosh on canapés in decked-out ballrooms and entertain in private dining rooms.

The ultimate unknown this year is how the conventions will affect the race itself.

In the past, nominees have counted on a so-called “convention bounce” that boosted them in the polls shortly afterward. It amounts to little more than a sugar rush as the bumps often cancel each other out and the race settles back into place.

Lynn Vavreck, a politics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that she’ll be curious to see how this year’s events play out.

“It seems like a great opportunity,” she said, “especially because we’ve all been watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ reruns for a month.”

Even if the virtual conventions are a bust, delegates like Tennessee professor Gail Helt say she won’t be disappointed -- because everyone will be safe from infection.

“Really, right now, I’d much rather that our candidates make it alive through the election,” she said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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