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The virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, explained

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For the first time in modern United States history, there will be no screaming throngs of delegates cheering at the Democratic National Convention as the party’s nominees for president and vice president give their acceptance speeches. No red, white, and blue balloons and confetti will drop from the ceiling of the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Instead, former Vice President Joe Biden will accept the Democratic nomination for president over a live video stream from his home in Delaware — the place he’s spent the vast majority of his time campaigning virtually during a general election dramatically reshaped by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year, the Democratic officials and delegates who were supposed to travel to Milwaukee for the party’s biggest celebration will have the same view of the Democratic National Convention as everyone else in the country: from their television screens. All the major networks will carry two hours of programming each night of the DNC — from Monday, August 17, to Thursday, August 20 — beginning at 9 pm Eastern; the convention will also be streamed live from the DNC’s website.

The Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee was to host the Democratic National Convention.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

A fully virtual convention cements the reality that 2020 isn’t really a year for celebrating. Amid a once-in-a-century pandemic that’s claimed more than 165,000 American lives and counting, Democrats are hoping their virtual convention sends a larger message about how their nominee plans to govern in a time of national crisis. With an absence of federal leadership from President Donald Trump, the Biden campaign and national Democrats are portraying themselves as the party of responsibility.

“I’ve wanted to set an example as to how we should respond individually to this crisis,” Biden said at a recent virtual fundraiser, talking about the virtual convention. “From the start of the process, we’ve made it clear. … Science matters.”

Democrats have known for months that the normal throng of thousands of cheering delegates was out of the question with the coronavirus. A public health order from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett would have limited the convention’s in-person capacity to 250 people, but coronavirus cases in Wisconsin are also still on the rise, and interstate travel comes with risk.

Even with stringent safety measures like mandatory masks and daily temperature checks already in place, some Democrats feared even the sparsest indoors convention could still potentially spread Covid-19. After Trump’s June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, coronavirus cases in that city surged, and former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain died of the Covid-19. Democrats didn’t want to risk any new cases emerging from their national convention.

“From the very beginning of this pandemic, we put the health and safety of the American people first,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said in a statement. “We followed the science, listened to doctors and public health experts, and we continued making adjustments to our plans in order to protect lives. That’s the kind of steady and responsible leadership America deserves. And that’s the leadership Joe Biden will bring to the White House.”

Democrats want one big message to dominate their convention: Where Trump has failed, Biden will lead America out of its current crisis.

“People care about one thing, they care about being safe,” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told Vox. “It’s a totally different dynamic; we have one message to come out of that convention.”

Democrats have been planning for a virtual convention for months

A national party convention is organized chaos. Tens of thousands of delegates from every state and territory pack into sports arenas for multiple days. They cheer, shake hands, hug, and move around in cramped spaces teeming with other people.

Now that’s every public health official’s worst nightmare.

Normally, “you have four days of constant programming,” McAuliffe, the chair of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, told Vox. The daily parade of speeches is “really for the people who are hoping to embellish their résumés, but this is a different election.”

The Democratic National Committee is packing what is normally hours of events into tight, two-hour television segments. The format will be mostly the same as an in-person convention, but the speeches will be shorter and more sober, given the seriousness of the current moment.

“Having 5,000 people screaming and partying, does that meet the moment?” Alex Lasry, senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks and an instrumental figure in bringing the DNC to his home city, told Vox. “This is a very serious time and a very serious moment; this is something you can’t do ad hoc.”

In previous years, the convention would be a moment for party unity and celebration. This year, Democrats hope their convention conveys how they plan to govern in the Covid-19 era: with responsibility.

“People are at home, so they’re going to pay attention; I think it’s a great opportunity for Joe Biden,” McAuliffe said.

Joe Biden attends a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, on July 28.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Democrats have been planning for a virtual convention since April, and the basic question of what would keep convention attendees healthy drove every step, sources familiar with the planning told Vox. The DNC brought on two epidemiologists to consult from a public health perspective. And a convention initially meant to draw tens of thousands to Milwaukee was then pared down to no more than 250 people, after an order from the Milwaukee Health Department.

“While we wish we could move forward with welcoming the world to beautiful Milwaukee in two weeks, we recognize protecting the health of our host community and everyone involved with this convention must be paramount,” Joe Solmonese, CEO of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Important Democratic figures like former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were set to deliver their speeches remotely. But as the summer dragged on with little reprieve and coronavirus cases continued to go up in some regions — including the Midwest — holding any type of in-person convention in Milwaukee seemed less and less likely. The decision ultimately was made to have Biden and his eventual running mate avoid travel to Wisconsin and give their acceptance speeches remotely as well.

Democrats believe their event will provide a stark contrast to the message coming out of Trump’s Republican National Convention. Even the planning of the RNC has been marked by chaos every step of the way; Republicans first canceled their event in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the city put a limit on the number of people who could attend the convention, then switched the site of the convention to be outside in sweltering Jacksonville, Florida. But as coronavirus cases spiked in Jacksonville, Republican officials moved the scaled-down convention back to Charlotte, making their decision in late July.

For now, the RNC is planning for at least one day of in-person events with 336 delegates traveling from across the country, as well as event staff. RNC attendees will have to comply with a number of health and safety checks, including travel and temperature screening, and mask wearing inside the convention hall. President Trump is not planning to attend, recently floating the idea of delivering his acceptance speech from the White House — which prompted at least one Republican senator to question the legality of such a move.

“The way these conventions have been handled has been a look at the kind of leadership of both candidates and both parties,” Lasry said.

Covid-19 is changing the way conventions are held. How much does it matter?

In some ways, 2020 is an easier year to discard the in-person pomp and circumstance of a regular convention, some Democrats told Vox.

Unlike 2016 and 2008, there’s little reconciling that needs to happen between progressives and establishment Democrats. The common purpose of defeating Trump and getting to work on bringing down coronavirus cases has done that for Democratic factions, and Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders have already collaborated on policy task forces designed to bring moderates and progressives together.

“One of the big things about bringing closure to the primary wasn’t needed this time because we had such an early nominee,” McAuliffe told Vox. “We had closure three months ago.”

But the Democratic National Convention involves a lot more than speeches and party unity. Important business like the party platform is typically voted on at the conventions, and the event itself provides a chance for delegates and party activists from around the country to meet and organize. Much of that will still happen on Zoom, but some fear the organic energy will be lost.

“I totally support the fact that we’re not having an in-person convention; it would have been insane, but what you lose is the 4,000 elected delegates meeting in their parties every morning,” said longtime DNC member Larry Cohen, board chair of the Bernie Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution. “The most important part is the people getting involved in their state parties and meeting every day.”

That party-building will shift to being conducted virtually throughout the election, especially as many Democratic campaigns aren’t yet returning to the in-person elements of campaigning like door-knocking and field work. Still, some state party chairs, including Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb, said if money that was supposed to go to the convention gets reinvested in the state parties, it’s a good thing.

“The national convention has never built a state party,” Kleeb said.

A sign advertising the DNC in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Kleeb told Vox she’s already much happier with how the Biden campaign and national Democrats are partnering with individual state parties, including hers, describing the effort as much more coordinated than it was in 2016, with more staff even in redder states like Nebraska.

“For me, this is a very bright light at the end of a pretty dark tunnel,” Kleeb said, adding that Biden’s senior staff “understand the value of a strong state party and they understand the liability of a weak state party.”

Kleeb will be watching the convention from home this year, rather than traveling to Milwaukee as she normally would have. But for her, the work of Democratic party-building continues in safe ways, texting and calling or dropping off written notes at voters’ houses instead of having in-person conversations. Politics is adapting to the pandemic, and the Democratic National Convention should be no different, Kleeb said.

“That’s the fundamental thing we ask from our public officials is that they just care about us as a person,” she said.


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