There won’t be any huge balloon drops at the Democratic or Republican party conventions this year. Presidential candidates will not get the chance to accept their nominations in front of massive, cheering crowds. Political reporters and strategists will not descend on a carefully selected American city to kick off the final stretch of the 2020 presidential election.
And some in Washington say those changes may be for the best.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended plans for both nominating conventions, which will unfold over the next two weeks – Democrats first, then Republicans. Both nominees – Donald Trump and Joe Biden – will deliver their acceptance speeches remotely, and attendance at the two conventions has been sharply restricted. About 50,000 people attended each convention in 2016, a mere fraction of that number are expected to this year.
Rather than mourning the loss of the in-person convention, some commentators have suggested that the unique nature of this year’s events may represent an opportunity to re-evaluate an outdated tradition. But leaders of both parties insist the conventions still serve a vital purpose of informing voters about the presidential nominees and their platforms.
While the conventions have been held since 1831, they have become increasingly anticlimactic in recent decades. No convention has gone to a second ballot since 1952, and the last legitimate, although unsuccessful, effort to seize the nomination at a convention took place in 1980.
“[Conventions] really began in the antebellum period in the 19th century as an opportunity for party leaders and party operatives to come together and debate platforms,” said Kathryn Brownell, a history professor at Purdue University and the author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Politics.
Now, a convention mainly serves as a party’s stamp of approval on its already-chosen nominee. The four days of events have turned into an intricately coordinated infomercial for each party’s nominee, featuring a lineup of speeches from longtime lawmakers and rising stars.
“Once you have the introduction of the more open primary process to select the candidates, the conventions then become about presenting a more unified party to the American public and more about what they’re going to stand for in the election,” Brownell said.
Those shifting dynamics have translated into decreasing interest, at least among television networks. The days of “gavel-to-gavel” coverage are long gone, and networks in recent years have instead devoted just one hour of primetime coverage to the conventions each night.
In an editorial published earlier this month, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board argued the conventions had devolved into a “half-hearted spectacle of too many dull speeches and too many TV talking-heads spouting repetitive gossip and gibberish”.
The board wrote: “It is a bit sad to lose the tradition of the political convention. But, in truth, it died, like the dodo, long ago.”
Despite that waning interest, party leaders push back against claims that conventions are relics of a bygone political era. “I think there’s still a remarkable importance to coming together in a city,” the Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez, said last week. “I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
For the host cities themselves, there is economic value. The 2016 conventions generated roughly $200m in revenue for Cleveland and Philadelphia, but this year’s host cities – Charlotte and Milwaukee – will not see the same bump now that the events are mostly virtual.
Perez also argued the traditional convention represented an invaluable opportunity for party members to gather and discuss their priorities. “There is often no substitute for that interaction that you get and the learning that you do,” Perez said.
That sentiment was echoed by political strategists on both sides of the aisle, several of whom said they expected the conventions to return to their traditional format once it was safe to host large events.
“That’s the kind of kinetic energy that is untranslatable. You’ve got to be in the room. You’ve got to feel that,” said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “It sets up the shockwave the nominee wants to send out to the country.”
Steele and others said there was no replacement for the excitement of nominees delivering their acceptance speeches to thousands of cheering fans. Democrats in particular are losing the opportunity to celebrate California senator Kamala Harris’ historic achievement, as she becomes the first Black woman and first Asian American to join a major party’s presidential ticket.
“We’re all lamenting that that moment in history will not be captured in the traditional convention stage way,” said Leah Daughtry, who ran the 2008 and 2016 Democratic conventions.
Both Daughtry and Henry Barbour, Mississippi’s national committeeman to the RNC, also noted that the conventions allow delegates, who represent some of the most ardent members of each party, to come together for training and networking.
“The opportunity for the grassroots workers to go to a national convention and be around people who share their passion and love of politics is important,” Barbour said. “It serves as a great reward to the workers in the party.”
Barbour is one of just 336 delegates who will still convene in Charlotte to formally nominate Trump, and he is missing the convention hoopla of past years. “It’s just not going to have the impact that 2016 and other years have had, and so I think we’ll get back to that,” Barbour said.
However, even if in-person conventions return in 2024, this year could still represent an opportunity to reconsider how they are held. Democrats, for example, are allowing virtual delegate voting for the first time, which could expand participation in future conventions as well.
Daughtry, who virtually cast her delegate vote for Biden last week, also suggested shortening conventions. “My prediction is that they will be one or two days, not four, because the business of the convention can really be accomplished in just a few hours,” Daughtry said.
Steele was similarly open to shorter conventions, and he argued that social media could help make the events feel less scripted. “I’m watching to see how social media generates and creates that spontaneity or brings some of that back in future convention settings,” Steele said. “Because you can’t control what someone’s tweeting from the floor.”
Despite some calls to end the political tradition, Steele expressed optimism that the parties could find ways to resurrect the interest sparked by earlier conventions. “They’re boring, but they are necessary,” Steele said. “I don’t think they need to be necessarily boring.”