Five things to watch at the Democratic National Convention

A Democratic National Convention like no other will kick off on Monday, reaching a climax with a speech by newly minted presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll GOP set to release controversial Biden report Can Donald Trump maintain new momentum until this November? MORE on Thursday evening.

The convention, originally scheduled for Milwaukee, was first postponed from July to August over concerns about the coronavirus, and then moved almost entirely online.

Here are five major things to watch.


How diminished will the event be by the pandemic?

Conventions have historically given presidential candidates significant — if often fleeting — boosts. Data website FiveThirtyEight noted last month that, since 1968, candidates have experienced an average post-convention bounce of 5 percentage points in national opinion polls.

Conventions are powerful in part because they draw in TV viewers who are not following every twist and turn in an election campaign. 

On a good night, the top shows on cable news pull in about 4 million viewers. When then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocratic Senate campaign arm outraises GOP by M in August A federal court may have declared immigration arrests unconstitutional Blunt says vote on Trump court nominee different than 2016 because White House, Senate in 'political agreement' MORE (D-Ill.) accepted the Democratic nomination in a Denver football stadium in 2008, 38 million people were watching.

Democratic convention organizers have been working for months on ways to enliven a virtual convention. But it will be enormously difficult to conjure up the same kind of pizzazz seen at an in-person gathering.

Media coverage will also be very different. One key metric will be the extent to which TV viewing figures take a hit.

The Biden campaign can take solace from the fact that the equivalent Republican event, taking place a week later, is grappling with similar problems. But President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE at least has the unique platform of the presidency. For a challenger, a convention is a rare chance to claim the national spotlight.


That spotlight is going to be significantly dimmer this year.

Can Biden inspire — or at least seem fresh — in his big speech?

“The good news is that people know me,” Biden often said on the stump during the pre-coronavirus stretch of the primary campaign. “The bad news is that people know me.”

It’s as concise as a summation as you could get.

Biden has been a national political figure for longer than many voters have been alive. He was first elected to the Senate in 1972 and stayed there for 36 years before becoming vice president to Obama.

Biden partisans make a virtue of his familiarity. They say a return to more normal, orthodox leadership could be just what many voters are looking for after the endless controversy and conflict of Trump’s first term.

It’s a plausible argument — and Biden has the polling lead to show for it.

But it’s not the full story. 

Those same polls have often shown that more Trump supporters than Biden supporters are passionate about their preferred candidate. 

A recent CBS News analysis found Trump supporters more enthusiastic than Biden backers — albeit sometimes by modest margins — across the five key states it examined: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Texas. 

Biden faces a real challenge on Thursday — how to give some new vim and vigor to his appeal, having spent a half-century in public life.

What will Trump do to take some of the attention away?

Even Trump’s foes acknowledge that he has been effective at setting the media agenda — much to their frustration.

The president has an apparently insatiable desire to be center-stage — and whether that’s for positive or negative stories sometimes seems beside the point for him. 


He will not want to cede ground in the publicity war for four days straight. The New York Times reported on Saturday that the Trump campaign is spending "high seven figures" on an intensive digital ad campaign during the Democratic convention — including a banner ad on the YouTube homepage for 96 hours, beginning Tuesday.

Trump is slated to give public remarks on Monday and Tuesday in three competitive states: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Arizona. There seems a reasonable possibility that he could also offer rolling Twitter commentary on some of the Democratic speeches, especially from Obama and his 2016 opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Democratic super PAC to hit Trump in battleground states over coronavirus deaths Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE.

Trump’s attacks can cause heartburn even among GOP ranks, as has been the case with his immediate barrage against Biden’s chosen running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSocial Security and Medicare are on the ballot this November Harris honors Ginsburg, visits Supreme Court The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump and Biden vie for Minnesota | Early voting begins in four states | Blue state GOP governors back Susan Collins MORE (D-Calif.). His comments in that regard have sparked accusations of sexism.

But the president will likely judge it a success if he can inject himself — by whatever means — into the middle of coverage of the Democrats’ big occasion.

How hard will the Obamas and the Clintons hit Trump?

The biggest names in Democratic politics will all be speaking at the convention, but aside from Biden and Harris, a lot of the attention is likely to focus on two families.

Former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaTo honor Justice Ginsburg's legacy, Biden should consider Michelle Obama National Urban League, BET launch National Black Voter Day The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - White House moves closer to Pelosi on virus relief bill MORE will speak on Monday and former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBattle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates Bill Clinton on GOP push to fill Ginsburg vacancy: Trump, McConnell 'first value is power' MORE on Tuesday, with Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slated for Wednesday.


The third day could prove the most dramatic. Obama frustrated some of his supporters by not speaking out more publicly during the early part of his successor’s tenure. That has begun to change recently.

On Friday, during an appearance on the podcast of his former aide David Plouffe, the former president accused Trump of trying to “actively kneecap the Postal Service” in order to discourage voting by mail. 

Hillary Clinton has been more willing to criticize Trump throughout his presidency, especially on Twitter. Strong attacks from her would be virtually guaranteed to draw a counter-blast from Trump — though the former secretary of State might not mind that at all.

Bill Clinton is no longer the dominant figure he once was, but he can still connect with the kind of heartland voters Biden needs — and who migrated to Trump last time around.

Michelle Obama has been the most admired woman in the nation for the past two years, according to Gallup polling. 

Her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was widely hailed as among the best of the entire event. She recently confessed on her podcast to suffering “low-grade depression” about the state of the nation. Monday will be her biggest chance to make a difference.

How public are the tensions between the left and the Biden camp?


Four years ago, the enmity within the Democratic Party was a huge story at its convention in Philadelphia. Ill-feeling was rampant between supporters of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNYT editorial board remembers Ginsburg: She 'will forever have two legacies' Two GOP governors urge Republicans to hold off on Supreme Court nominee Sanders knocks McConnell: He's going against Ginsburg's 'dying wishes' MORE (I-Vt.) and those who backed Clinton. 

The head of the Democratic National Committee at the time, Rep. Debbie Wasserman SchultzDeborah (Debbie) Wasserman SchultzFlorida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Five things to watch at the Democratic National Convention Michelle Obama wishes Barack a happy birthday: 'My favorite guy' MORE (D-Fla.), resigned on the eve of the convention after leaked emails showed that party officials had been seeking to undermine the Sanders campaign during the primary.

The tensions also produced one of the more surprising — and viral — moments of the convention when comic Sarah Silverman, who had supported Sanders, said from the stage that “the Bernie or bust people” were being “ridiculous.”

Democratic dissent that year came against a widespread sense that Clinton was odds-on to be elected president. Now, the sheer fervor with which Democrats want to get Trump out of the White House could help bind the party together.

That doesn’t mean it will be all plain sailing. 

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaThe Hill Interview: Jerry Brown on climate disasters, COVID-19 and Biden's 'Rooseveltian moment' Congress needs to prioritize government digital service delivery DeJoy defends Postal Service changes at combative House hearing MORE (D-Calif.) a leading progressive, announced on Thursday that he would vote against the policy platform being put forward at the convention, because he is dissatisfied that it lacks “a clear statement supporting Medicare for All.”

There has been some grumbling in liberal quarters that the convention speakers will also include former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, as well as Michael BloombergMichael BloombergTop Democratic super PAC launches Florida ad blitz after Bloomberg donation The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Latest with the COVID-19 relief bill negotiations The Memo: 2020 is all about winning Florida MORE. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, bankrolled a lavish but ineffective campaign for the Democratic nomination earlier this year.

For all that, though, opposition to Trump is a powerful glue to keep party unity intact.