Aug 17, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The conventions' quantum leap

Jessica Jennings, director of media logistics, shows off the convention's control room at the Wisconsin Center. Photos: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Reuters

The pandemic is forcing both parties to do what they should have attempted years ago: Blow up the crusty, old formula for political conventions.

Driving the news. We'll see how it plays starting tonight, when the Democratic Party kicks off the start of a highly condensed, mostly virtual, four-day show choreographed for the social-mobile era.

What we're watching: Convention organizers tell Axios one way they're trying to engage their audience is by calling for self-shot videos from Americans across the country, with a promise to play the videos in prime time — like Republicans declaring their support for Joe Biden.

  • Democratic National Convention CEO Joe Solmonese has swapped out the traditional Tuesday night keynote address, instead dividing the slot among 17 different speakers.
  • Biden will close out the show Thursday night when he takes the stage at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware — delivering his acceptance speech to a mostly empty space with extreme health protocols in place.

Why it matters: Democrats privately acknowledge there's some risk in relying on just eight hours of political programming over four nights, woven together with pre-taped, live, and remote events — with no real sense of how it will come across to the millions of American voters watching it on TV.

  • “Networks aren't going to know how to cover this,” said Erik Smith, who was creative director for the 2008, 2012 and 2016 conventions. “In the past, they'd take the speeches but not the interludes."
  • Democrats expect cable news channels to cover both hours of programing, and networks to cover the second hour, perhaps with a little give on the back end if a big speech goes long.
  • But with a virtual convention, there also are fewer opportunities for disgruntled Democrats to protest or disrupt speeches, making it easier to paper over differences and emphasize party unity. Don't expect the "Bernie! Bernie!" chants Hillary Clinton endured in 2016.

Flashback: As conventions morphed from nominating contests into coronation ceremonies, party planners tried to script and stage every detail to achieve made-for-TV perfection.

  • Along the way, the conventions became pageants. Their outcomes haven't really been in doubt since Sen. Ted Kennedy held out against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Conventions still need to be geared towards broadcast TV to some extent because "networks get people who are casually interested in politics,” Smith said. “That's who you want."

  • Planners expect some awkward television moments, when activists call in from self-made home studios for live chats. They hope it lends authenticity.
  • If the convention feels too much like a telethon, viewers will change the channel.
  • Biden, his running mate Kamala Harris and the other speakers won't have the energy of mass crowds to feed off. But Biden was always stronger in smaller settings than giant rallies.

The other side: While Democrats have been preparing for months for a virtual convention, Republicans only recently gave up on having part or all of their convention in person.

  • Because Republicans' convention is a week later, they have the advantage of watching Democrats to see what works — and what doesn't — and adjust accordingly.

Between the lines: Convention speeches are shorter this year — and this means less time for rising stars in the party to grab the spotlight. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets only 60 seconds, hemmed in by musical interludes and a master of ceremonies to move events along.

Be smart: What party strategists won’t miss: Prima donna politicians demanding prime-time speaking slots. Reporters talking to disgruntled delegates who backed losing candidates. Cable commentators talking over speeches instead of playing them live.

  • What delegates will miss: In-person state roll calls. Meeting — and taking measure of — many up-and-coming party leaders. The balloon drop.
  • What lobbyists won’t be doing: Early morning policy panels and breakfasts. Squiring CEOs to meetings with lawmakers. Last-minute changes to the platform.
  • What reporters will miss: Unscripted moments. The kitsch and sweep of the spectacle. Conversations with activists and voters.
  • What everyone will miss: The parties.

The bottom line: Coronavirus crashed the conventions, but it’s forcing a reboot that’s long overdue.

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