Democrats see convention as chance to underscore COVID-19 message
Democrats are ironing out how to make the biggest splash with their party’s convention, which some see as a chance to bolster presumptive nominee Joe Biden’s chances for the White House despite the unusual circumstances.
The convention was to have taken place next week in Milwaukee, but those plans changed with the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 130,000 in the United States and wreaked devastation on the economy.
Convention planners have told delegates not to attend the Democratic National Convention because of COVID-19, but they are still sorting out everything from how delegations will vote to corporate sponsorship and how to handle speeches given virtually instead of to packed and roaring crowds.
“It’s a clusterf—. That much is clear,” said one Biden ally familiar with some of the discussions. “It will all come together, I’m sure, but there aren’t many answers right now.”
For starters, delegates and other party leaders are still trying to decide how they will gather.
With most states seeing rising coronavirus cases and some such as Florida, Texas, California and Arizona seeing their numbers explode, party leaders are throwing cold water on the idea of holding smaller conventions or meetings at state capitals.
Instead, some Democrats are proposing smaller gathering sites for some who feel comfortable and video calls to cast votes, according to delegates and others familiar with the discussions.
Democrats hope their convention can serve as an opportunity to contrast their approach to the coronavirus pandemic to that of President Trump and Republicans.
Trump has seen his poll numbers fall since the pandemic began, with surveys showing dissatisfaction with his handling of the crisis. Polls show Biden leading the race nationally and in swing states.
The convention, Democrats say, could serve as a chance to underscore such perceptions in a way that could help Biden build momentum toward November.
“Each party’s approach to convention planning seems to mirror the way in which we’ve chosen to respond to this crisis: while Democrats are acknowledging the severity of this pandemic and taking proactive steps to prevent more people from getting sick, the Trump administration is moving forward with reckless plans that ignore the public health landscape in service of the president’s ego,” said Joe Solmonese, the CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee.
Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials have been in constant communication with epidemiologists, who have provided guidance on how to hold a convention during a pandemic. The convention has boasted about bringing on nationally renowned infectious disease experts, including W. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, and Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who participated in the World Health Program’s Smallpox eradication program, to advise on health and safety around the event.
“Willfully ignoring a crisis might be an easier path forward for Republicans, but Democrats are committed to always being transparent and truthful with the American public and our decisions will always be grounded in how to best keep people safe,” Solmonese added.
The state delegations have been told not to travel to Milwaukee, which is hosting the convention, and will receive instructions about how they will cast their votes on the presidential nomination and other convention matters. The DNC’s standing committee will also hold its meetings virtually beginning in late July.
“I don’t know of many delegates who want to travel anywhere, even locally,” said one delegate in New York. “I’m recommending we do a Zoom call. If you can vote virtually, I know that’s not very exciting and isn’t the best thing optically, but there’s a real risk involved.”
Republicans are facing a similarly difficult situation. The GOP is still planning to do convention business in Charlotte, N.C., the site initially picked to host the Republican National Convention. But Trump wants to hold a celebration for his nomination in Jacksonville, Fla., a state where COVID-19 cases have spiked.
Democrats believe it will be difficult for both parties to attract money from fundraisers or corporate sponsors, given the deeply polarized state of the political landscape and corporate concerns about the optics of holding conventions amid the pandemic.
“We’ve been grateful for the support we’ve received and are confident we’ll have the resources necessary for our convention,” said one source working on the convention.
After the DNC made their decision to move to an almost virtual convention, Rusty Hicks, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, sent an email to delegates advising them of the plans.
“The DNC is working on plans for remote participation for all Delegates, Standing Committee Members, and Party Leaders,” Hicks wrote. “A process is being developed to ensure all Delegates can cast their votes on all Convention matters remotely—including nomination of our Party’s candidate for President.”
But one delegate said with almost a month to go, “There hasn’t been any more clarity.”
There’s also the question of how — and where — prominent speakers like former President Obama, 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other party leaders will deliver their addresses so that the convention is not back-to-back film going from one person’s den to another’s.
“There’s some talk of mixing up the settings,” said the Biden ally. “But that’s up to the principal, obviously.”
The convention planners have announced that in addition to live broadcasts, the convention will air “curated content” from “satellite cities, locations and landmarks across the country.”
The production will be overseen by Ricky Kirshner, a nine-time Emmy Award winner who has produced large scale events from the Tony Awards to the Super Bowl halftime show.
Michael Kapp, who heads the DNC’s youth council, said he’s not too worried about the stagecraft, as he said the majority of Americans see the convention from their homes.
“These really are made-for-TV events,” he said. “It will still be that.”
As for Biden, two sources familiar with his plans say while things could change, he is likely to fly into Milwaukee to give his acceptance speech before a small crowd.
“I think it’s an in-and-out kind of thing,” one source said. “It’s just about keeping him safe.”
“This all sucks but, at the end of the day, it’s all about safety,” the source added.
Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.