The Memo: Muted conventions may scramble 2020 race

The Memo: Muted conventions may scramble 2020 race
© Greg Nash

This year’s party conventions will be unlike any others in the modern era, adding yet another wildcard to the presidential race and raising questions about what future conventions will look like.

A New York Times report on Friday noted that the total attendance at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee — projected to number up to 50,000 before the coronavirus struck — could instead be limited to just 300.

The Republican National Convention will be split between Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. It was originally planned to take place solely in North Carolina but President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE took umbrage at social distancing restrictions that would have been imposed there. The events in Jacksonville — including Trump’s acceptance speech — could take place outdoors, in an effort to mitigate the COVID-19 risks.


In both cases, the disconnect from the usual pomp and circumstance will be sharp.

Democratic members of Congress have been instructed not to attend their convention and a number of high-profile Republicans are signaling they will also take a pass on theirs.

If Trump’s acceptance speech does take place outside, it will be a rarity in the modern era. The only comparable occurrence came in 2008, when Democratic excitement around then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA simple fix can bring revolutionary change to health spending US and UK see eye to eye on ending illegal wildlife trade Top nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report MORE’s (D-Ill.) nomination was such that his speech in Denver was moved outside to accommodate an enormous crowd in Mile High Stadium.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE was unlikely to ever generate that level of excitement for this year’s gathering. But he will nevertheless be deprived of the chance to reintroduce himself to the American public before a big, revved-up crowd.

The overall effects of the muted conventions could cancel each other out, perhaps depriving each candidate of the kind of “convention bounce” commonly seen in polling around the showpiece events.

“I certainly would expect it to dampen the bounce, because if you have fewer people tuning in, that by itself lessens the opportunity for people to react to the message the parties are sending out,” said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte who has written widely about political conventions.


Naturally, Republicans and Democrats see the likely impact differently.

Keith Appell, a GOP strategist, said: “Biden has benefited from a low-key campaign…so far. But he’s living a bit on borrowed time as, at some point, you have to come out of hiding and face the person you’re running against. Americans aren’t going to elect someone president if they simply stay in the basement.”

There is also the question of whether Biden will suffer more because, unlike an incumbent president, he cannot so easily command the national spotlight on a day-to-day basis.

Democrats counter that the current state of the polls suggests Biden is doing just fine — and that it is Trump who should be desperate for the kind of game-changer that a convention could provide.

“Something has to happen [for Trump] to change the trend-line,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “Previously, if you were having a bad summer, the convention created an opportunity to change the news, to springboard off into the fall. Today, Trump is the one who is in bigger need of that kind of opportunity.”

There is one rare point of agreement across the ideological spectrum — the altered nature of the 2020 conventions will greatly reduce the potential for there to be a surprise breakout star at either event.

There are numerous examples of people who sparkled at conventions even though they were not the nominee.

Obama’s 2004 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, delivered when he was still a state senator, is the most famous example. But other figures as disparate as then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), in 2008, and then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), in 1984, have also seized the moment.

“It would have been fascinating to see Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDon't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery Ocasio-Cortez explains 'present' vote on Iron Dome Dingell fundraises off Greene altercation on Capitol steps MORE on the left, and Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawGOP seeks Biden referendum over vaccine mandates The Memo: Biden comes out punching on COVID-19 The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by AT&T - Texas's near abortion ban takes effect MORE on the right, get that spotlight on a national stage and gauge the reaction, both in the convention hall and nationally,” Appell said. “It’s somewhat sad we won’t get to experience that.”

For the presidential campaigns, the question will be how to command attention without the atmosphere that a huge crowd provides.

The search is on for an answer to that question.

“The challenge is you may not have several nights of programming,” in which to make your case, said Democratic strategist Karen Finney. “You have a shorter time to do that, and you have to be creative because you don’t have the same kind of platform. It is different from knowing the networks and the cables are going to focus on it.”

The question of the longer-term impact is complicated.

On one hand, most experts acknowledge that this year is aberrational because of the coronavirus crisis. They are reluctant to suggest changes made out of necessity now will be replicated in the future.

“I think the unusual conventions this year reflect the special circumstances of the pandemic. I don’t think they will set a precedent,” said American University history professor Allan Lichtman.

On the other hand, Heberlig, the UNC Charlotte professor, noted that in the future cities might be less enthusiastic about hosting conventions — something that requires enormous time and planning — given the problems this year.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor, emphasized that conventions are in fact in a constant state of change. At one point, for example, they were much more of a forum for substantive political debate ,whereas they have lately become made-for-TV spectacles.

“As a matter of history, they are different every time,” Lepore said. “They get reinvented every few years depending on the political style of the era.”


For this year’s conventions, though, Lepore was reluctant to predict they would give any notable boost to either Trump or Biden.

“The Washington press corps has the conventional-convention wisdom that there is a bump,” she said. “I am not sure there will be a bump. I know I will be watching baseball if, dear God, there is baseball on television.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.