WASHINGTON — There’s still a chance that this summer’s Democratic and Republican nominating conventions will look like they have in years past. There could still be the bright lights, the speeches, the cheering delegates from every state and thousands of falling balloons.
Alternatively, thanks to the coronavirus, they could look radically different, with the crisis giving party officials an opportunity to reinvent what a nominating convention looks like.
Regardless of how the parties choose to proceed, figuring out how to stage the nation’s largest and most important political gatherings will be tricky in the COVID-19 era. And while officials in both parties say they’re still planning for in-person conventions, pulling that off will be a lot easier said than done.
Current Democratic Party rules stipulate that delegates won’t be able to vote remotely when they formally nominate Joe Biden at their convention. But the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which has the power to change that, is scheduled to meet on Tuesday.
The committee is not scheduled to take up the issue, according to multiple Democratic National Committee members who spoke with Yahoo News. But one party official closely involved in DNC affairs said pressure is building to allow delegates to avoid traveling to Milwaukee in August because of health concerns.
“The question the DNC keeps getting behind the scenes is, ‘Why don’t you just change the rules?’ They’ve been a little resistant,” the Democrat told Yahoo News.
One of the DNC members who spoke with Yahoo News said “most people I’ve talked to don’t want to go to a convention with 10,000 people.”
Joe Biden addresses the Democratic National Convention in 2008. (David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images)
Katie Peters, the communications director for the Democratic convention, told Yahoo News that organizers are looking at “contingency” plans.
“As we continue to monitor how this unprecedented pandemic is impacting our country, our team will continue to explore a range of contingency options so that we’re prepared to nominate the next president of the United States and deliver a successful convention without risking public health,” she said.
DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa acknowledged in an interview that both political parties are in “uncharted territory.” And while they are “planning an in-person convention right now,” she said organizers “also don’t have our heads stuck in the stand when it comes to the public health crisis.”
That may mean implementing changes “that range from adjusting the format to the crowd size to the schedule.”
“One thing is for certain: We can’t just cancel a convention, because we have business. This is not a music festival or something that can be rescheduled later in the fall,” Hinojosa said.
“We specifically have to nominate someone to take on Donald Trump. That is very clear. So that business has to happen regardless in order to nominate Joe Biden.”
That’s a reference to the roll-call vote in which each state delegation formally votes for Biden to become its nominee, with a smattering of other votes going to candidates who have left the race. Once an occasion of high drama, this vote is now largely a pro forma affair, with the nominee already having been selected well in advance by Democratic primary voters.
But this year it’s unclear, even to many DNC insiders, how the party will pull off such a vote given the restrictions on large gatherings brought about by the pandemic.
In 2016, the voting took place on the first day of the convention in Philadelphia, as each state gathered in separate meetings. The results of those votes were announced on the second night of the convention, during the primetime broadcast of the proceedings.
There are a variety of alternative scenarios being discussed now. The main convention hall in Milwaukee could still be utilized, although it may serve as a TV stage more than anything else.
The roll-call vote could potentially take place with one representative from each state entering the hall to announce their vote, one DNC member told Yahoo News. Another DNC member floated the idea of having each state’s representative join the broadcast by teleconference from a symbolic location in their state, such as a capitol building.
Or there could be socially distanced gatherings of delegates in each state who call in and record their votes by videoconference.
“There’s a growing group of people thinking about this, how to use this as an opportunity to nationalize the convention a little more, have content streaming in from all over the country,” said the Democratic official involved in DNC matters.
“There’s an increasing number of Democrats who are urging the convention to think creatively about that to make it more national. There were folks thinking about that even before COVID: rallies all over the country rather than just the focus on the stage in one place.”
Elaine Kamarck, a DNC member who is one of the party’s foremost rules experts, said there shouldn’t be a problem with allowing delegates to vote remotely.
“Of all the problems we have to solve in the world, voting on a nominee digitally is the least of them. It’s pretty easy to do,” Kamarck told Yahoo News. “It can be done digitally because it’s not a secret ballot.”
An empty hall at the Republican National Convention in 2008. (David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images)
Every delegate is allocated to a presidential candidate according to the results of the primary voting in their state, “so if there were any attempt to interfere with the vote it would be immediately apparent,” Kamarck said.
“So the security issues are not as daunting as in a normal election,” she said.
The logistics of how each party officially chooses its nominee for president is the most significant question facing convention planners, but it is only one among many thorny challenges. And officials in both parties are trying to plan three months ahead even as predictive models, which are constantly changing their forecasts of the pandemic, have looked more dire in recent days.
After the matter of the roll-call vote, there is plenty of room for both parties to innovate in how they put on an event that decades ago ceased to be a deliberative gathering and morphed into a four-day TV show. Until the 1970s, conventions were truly news-making events, where party insiders came together to hash out who would be their nominee.
Starting in the ’70s, primaries replaced conventions as the way in which parties choose their nominee. Now the conventions are mostly infomercials for each party, and the move away from one physical location may open up a whole new world of possibility for conventions.
“Our convention can be anything,” said Stefan Smith, who was director of online engagement for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.
“Since it’s never been done before online, it means Democrats are in a position to build something completely new and unexpected without the burden of preset expectations,” he said. “We can finally break with the boring conventions of old that haven’t fundamentally changed in generations.
“One thing that Republicans understand — that Democrats too often forget — is that sometimes the American people want a bit of spectacle. Democrats need to stop trying to feed America its vegetables and for three days in August just give us some f***ing ice cream,” Smith said.
Smith’s ideal scenario would integrate showmanship and practicality. One of his ideas would be to move the convention from an event that has been built around four nights of primetime TV programming to a three-day digital festival.
“Let users hop from digital events on Instagram Live to Facebook to Twitch to Twitter,” he said. “Harness the power of Democratic surrogates to build programming that actually meets voters where they are online.”
High-impact online experiences — similar to rapper Travis Scott’s recent concert within the popular online video game “Fortnite,” an event that garnered tens of millions of views — could anchor the programming, Smith said.
“Give America a giant avatar of President Obama introducing another avatar of Joe Biden while they stand amidst a digital rendering of America through the ages!” he said.
And he suggested a cinematic staging of the nomination’s key moments.
“Give America Joe Biden accepting his nomination from a national monument like the Grand Canyon while the sun sets behind him,” Smith said. “If we don’t start moving soon we’re going to end up in a situation where it’s Joe Biden on a Zoom call accepting the nomination.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment. But technical glitches during Biden’s virtual town hall on Thursday reinforced concerns that the presumptive Democratic nominee is not running a cutting-edge digital campaign.
On the Republican side, there is even more uncertainty about whether President Trump will want to cancel a massive gathering that one Democrat called “the ultimate celebration of him.”
Last month, Trump mocked Biden’s push to move the convention to August, signaling that he found the idea of a virtual convention weak.
“Joe Biden wanted the date for the Democrat National Convention moved to a later time period. Now he wants a ‘Virtual’ Convention, one where he doesn’t have to show up. Gee, I wonder why?” Trump tweeted in April.
Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity at the time that he did not expect to make any alterations to planning for the convention — which is slated for the end of August — despite ever-changing public health guidance on coronavirus mitigation efforts.
“We’re having the convention at the end of August, and we think by the end of August we’ll be in good shape,” Trump told reporters in April.
His tone may telegraph a larger strategy among Republicans to frame themselves as the unflappable party, as even the simple act of wearing face coverings in public has morphed into a culture war issue.
The president has indicated he doesn’t plan to wear a mask in public, which may add an extra wrinkle to GOP convention planning. “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself,” he said in April.
“Republicans are basically saying, ‘We don’t have contingencies, we aren’t contingency planning, we are going to have an in-person convention, no ifs, ands or buts,’” said Hinojosa, the DNC spokeswoman.
The RNC announced Thursday that they had hired Dr. Jeffrey Runge, a former Homeland Security official, to assist them with convention planning.
“We’ve said from the start that we are committed to hosting a safe and successful 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, and Dr. Runge’s background and expertise will be instrumental as we continue to map out our plans that ensure the health safety of all convention participants and the Charlotte community,” said GOP convention chief Marcia Lee Kelley in a statement.
“We recognize this hasn’t been done before, but we remain committed to leading the path forward so that we can safely re-open America and create a five-star event for attendees and guests this August.”
But North Carolina Republicans, including Sen. Thom Tillis, are doubtful that their state can host 50,000 people in August, the New York Times reported Friday.
And one Republican insider with longtime ties to the Republican National Committee told Yahoo News he expects the RNC to have a mostly “made-for-TV event” that will likely have remote delegate voting through an app, and perhaps outdoor events in Charlotte, N.C., where the convention is scheduled to be held.
A Republican lawyer with experience in organizing conventions likewise said the pandemic will force changes to the conventions that are probably overdue.
“It’s something that people have been talking about since 2012, and probably before that, in 2008: alternative ways of doing conventions,” the lawyer said.
“But everybody who makes those decisions loves going to conventions. … You get treated like royalty. It’s a great boondoggle. Stay for free. Eat for free. Go to parties.
“Nobody had the gumption to be the one to want to change this institution,” he said. “Now you’ve got a microscopic bug who’s doing that job for them.”
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