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What Would Virtual Democratic And Republican Conventions Mean For The 2020 Presidential Race?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): One bit of political pageantry that could undergo a pretty dramatic makeover this year if the coronavirus remains a persistent threat is the party convention. Democrats have already postponed theirs from mid-July to mid-August and are now entertaining the possibility of hosting a remote convention. (The Republicans’ convention was already scheduled for late August and currently remains on track, although that could change.)

But considering in-person campaign rallies have already been suspended and fundraising events have gone entirely online, is this that big of a deal? After all, what happens at a convention that is important for a party?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s a really tricky question in some ways. Conventions are kind of a holdover from a past era when delegates really picked the nominee, but the transition from “conventions as real events” to “conventions as infomercials” has been kind of messy and slow.

sarahf: So just how big of a deal would a remote convention be?

julia_azari: It’s hard to say without knowing the electoral context of the late summer.

If it’s close, everything matters, including the possible convention bounce.

And that could be particularly important if Democrats do a virtual convention and Republicans don’t, which seems possible.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): But a big part of the reason why Democrats moved the convention to be immediately before the Republican one is probably to avoid that situation, Julia.

sarahf: I was thinking about that earlier, though, as the Republican National Committee said on Monday it is pushing “full steam ahead” in planning its convention. So I think Julia is right that one party could choose to host their convention remotely while the other doesn’t.

nrakich: On the question of what happens at a convention that is important for the party, I think there are two broad categories: the formal/bureaucratic part of actually selecting a nominee, and the public-facing infomercial part.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball had a great article the other day on this and how remote conventions could work. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the TLDR version is that the four important formalities that a convention must address — certifying delegates, approving the convention rules, electing convention officers and, of course, nominating the presidential and vice-presidential candidates — could all be done remotely but will require lots of advance planning.

As for the glitzy, self-promoting elements … I think that’s more of an open question.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Right, the party still officially picks its presidential and vice-presidential nominees at the convention and gets hours of television coverage in the process. But it’s really more of an opportunity to generate enthusiasm and support for the ticket and the party as a whole, as everyone already knows who the nominee will be.

There’s almost always a convention “bounce” in the polls for the party, too, which reflects this enthusiasm for one side to some extent. That bounce doesn’t fully stick around, but part of it can. For instance, some recent national polls have pegged Biden’s support among Democrats at about 80 percent. We would expect that to be closer to 90 percent on Election Day, and past elections have shown partisans coming home at convention time.

nrakich: One big question I have is, does a virtual convention produce the same kind of bounce?

I assume the networks will still carry the biggest highlights of the convention, like the presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ speeches. But the scope of their coverage will almost certainly be scaled back, right?

And there will inevitably be less energy surrounding those speeches if they’re delivered from, say, Biden’s living room than before an adoring crowd of thousands.

julia_azari: I think this depends quite a bit on context. Is everyone still at home watching TV all the time? Can the virtual convention convey the same energy — or possibly something different? I think a lot of us are learning that virtual may not be worse in all cases, but it does provide something different, as you’re saying, Nathaniel.

geoffrey.skelley: The pageantry part will be much harder to pull off virtually. And yeah, there won’t be the cheering crowds and energy that are part of that. No balloon drop.

sarahf: Parties definitely seem to fear losing the pageantry by going remote. But I keep going back to what you were outlining earlier, Nathaniel — so much of what happens at a convention is about intraparty rules that I don’t think your average person cares that much about — so I’m not sure there actually is that much of a downside.

Geoffrey was getting at this earlier, but isn’t the evidence on the effect of a post-convention bounce kind of mixed, too?

geoffrey.skelley: Historically, after the convention, one party has gotten at least some sort of gain that lasts; that is, it isn’t just an ephemeral bounce. That may be less true now, though, given how polarized and partisan our politics are. For instance, recent bounces have tended to be smaller.

Additionally, when conventions are held in back-to-back weeks, as will be the case this year, there’s evidence that a bounce can be stunted.

julia_azari: Yeah, it’s messy. If it’s close in the polls and one party gets a larger bounce, then that could still matter. Although it might also be worth noting here that our presidential elections are not determined by popular vote.

nrakich: Wait, they’re not?


sarahf: And as we were talking about earlier, if one party held their convention remotely while the other proceeded to have theirs in person, that could be … very messy.

Presumably, Democrats have more to lose from a remote convention, considering they’re not currently in control of the White House, right?

Or put another way, they have more to gain from a convention, right?

geoffrey.skelley: I think that’s right. There’s definitely more of an opportunity for Democrats to use the convention to showcase the party coming together. Remember, most Republicans are already set to rally to the incumbent.

nrakich: If Democrats hold a virtual convention but Republicans hold an in-person one (I think this is unlikely, but if they do go opposite ways, that’s probably the way it would go), it could mean Republicans get a convention bounce and Democrats don’t.

julia_azari: A lot of this is pretty contextual, though. For example, if things are still pretty bad with the pandemic, and Democrats did hold their convention remotely while Republicans didn’t, Democrats could still gain, as maybe they’d look like the party that’s making cautious decisions.

geoffrey.skelley: The fact that Biden is super well-known — more so than, say, Bill Clinton or Michael Dukakis going into their first or only conventions — might make the remote aspect less of a setback, too.

julia_azari: Can we talk geography for a minute? (As I sit a couple miles from where this is scheduled to happen.) It’s not obvious that convention locations shape electoral fates, but holding the convention in Milwaukee was supposed to signal the importance of the Midwest to the Democratic Party.

And while this might have been a gamble to begin with, taking the location out of it removes the significance of deciding to host it there. And for a small city to have been preparing for this for a year and not have it — there are likely to be devastating consequences. I don’t know that people in Milwaukee (a deeply blue city) will be put off the Democratic ticket because of this, but it just creates a very different effect than what was intended.

nrakich: That’s a great point about the economic consequences of canceling the conventions for their host cities — that’s something that gets lost in all this. But I think any electoral boost that a party gets from holding its convention in a swing state is extremely small to nonexistent.

julia_azari: Yeah, I agree with that. But like with so many things with campaign that probably don’t matter — parties and politicians can’t step away from the symbolic importance.

sarahf: And I suppose that neither can the media. Because that’s what we’ve all landed on as the real downside at stake here, right? That is, if the convention is held entirely online, it may not take up as much of the news cycle and might not result in as much of a bounce.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, it’ll be harder for cable news to cover the conventions if many journalists and hosts aren’t gathered in Milwaukee or Charlotte.

nrakich: That’s a good point, Geoffrey.

geoffrey.skelley: I mean, how can we have a convention without the CNN Grill?

julia_azari: I do wonder, though, how much media coverage is linked to anything that actually happens — like, visible tensions between different camps or unexpected things happening on the floor. Those are really rare, admittedly.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, 2016 was unusual in that there was some convention drama on both sides, even if the nominations were never in doubt. Some Republican rebels were trying to get an open convention vote to stop Trump, while some of Sanders’s supporters were fighting Clinton tooth and nail at the Democratic confab.

sarahf: Of course, this year Trump is the incumbent and Sanders has conceded sooner than he did in 2016. So in some ways, if there is going to be an election with a remote convention, this would be the one to have it, as party unity seems to be less of an issue this year.

julia_azari: Yeah. I am not sure what I would expect from a live Democratic National Convention, since the Sanders camp has been pretty conciliatory with Biden, and I think Democrats perceive the stakes pretty differently this year.

That said, if party unity were in jeopardy, a virtual format could actually help with that, making off-script events like Sanders supporters chanting during 2016 less likely. It might even be a relief for party leaders, but it would definitely be a disappointment for those of us who applaud democracy being at least a little messy.

sarahf: So whether they’re remote — or not — what’s the role of the parties’ conventions this year?

geoffrey.skelley: The role is the same in the sense of promoting the nominee, bringing the party together and uniting for the fall campaign. But if they’re remote, it remains to be seen how the parties carry that out. We’re in uncharted territory.

And just to reiterate the points above, earned media coverage will be much harder to come by if it’s remote. You won’t be able to turn to a 10-person cable news panel on site to discuss something or show clips of people at the convention during a segment on it.

sarahf: That’s true, but I guess I keep wondering what the actual downsides of a remote convention are. Most of what we’re talking about can still be done online, particularly the big keynote addresses from the presidential nominee and the vice-presidential nominee. I guess I’m just not sure if a remote convention is any bigger of a deal than a remote campaign rally or a remote debate.

nrakich: I agree, but I just think the optics will be different — probably in a way that we can’t quite predict until we see it.

Or maybe we can — think about how much more natural a State of the Union address (delivered before an audience) looks than the State of the Union response (often just delivered to a camera).

julia_azari: Though everyone may be used to stuff like that by August! I also think talented TV professionals can still make it interesting. And if we’re still mostly staying at home… well, I’ve watched three things on live TV in the last week, which probably hasn’t happened since 1998.

That said, while a virtual convention might be better at highlighting party unity, it might also double down on the superficial nature of a convention and push aside brewing conflicts to a later date or a different venue. Not to mention, a virtual convention might help the more powerful within the party, meaning the less-powerful factions won’t be able to use the in-person gathering to develop their political connections and networks of groups in different parts of the country. They also won’t be able to generate as much media attention.

I’m not really sure of the importance of national conventions for this stuff, especially in the digital age, but politics has always been about interpersonal relationships in a way that’s hard to quantify.

geoffrey.skelley: It’s tough to say what the impact might be, but I can see why the parties don’t want to go virtual if they don’t have to. There’s potentially less coverage of the event and less of a chance to get their message across.

nrakich: Yeah, it’s a risk, so it’s understandable if a party isn’t eager to take it. That said, sometimes taking a risk works out fine. It’s such an unprecedented situation that I don’t want to make any firm predictions.

julia_azari: I will say, though, that a big campaign point for Democrats is likely to be that the status quo under Trump is not good for a lot of people. A virtual convention could be a pretty good ad for that point of view.

geoffrey.skelley: Conventions are also arguably pretty archaic at this point. I remember the 2012 GOP convention lost a day because of a hurricane, and it wasn’t a big deal because who needed a fourth day?

sarahf: Exactly, Geoffrey. I can’t help but wonder whether we overplay the importance of the convention, when it’s really the speeches from the nominee and running mate that people tune in for, and if a remote convention wouldn’t actually be that big of a deal, especially when so many other things (remote debates, voting by mail) could be ushered in as changes.

nrakich: I suspect that, if we get virtual conventions this year, it will be good for at least a handful of political science dissertations.

julia_azari: It’s important to focus on the real impact. Research. 🙂

I’m being a little sarcastic, but I actually think there’s a lot we could learn from this.

It’s hard to apply any political science literature on the roles conventions play to our current moment, as studies tend to be about overall trends and ordinary conditions. And it’s hard, for me at least, to imagine that this campaign will be totally ordinary. There are just so many factors that depend on the context — for example, the economy and the new nature of virtual life under this pandemic. Then there’s also the unusual nature of the incumbent and the fact that Biden is really well-known.

sarahf: OK, to wrap — a remote convention is a very real possibility this year, but like so many other things that are being tossed about as alternatives to how we normally conduct business, there are also a lot of unknowns, i.e., will both parties do it remotely? And what would a remote convention even look like? But say it does happen — what do you see as the biggest downsides for the parties?

nrakich: Well, there’s the loss of the convention bounce as we have already discussed.

But one long-term downside for the parties could be that the networks realize how much of the convention is just pomp and circumstance and they decide they don’t have to cover it nearly as much in the future.

julia_azari: There will be downsides in terms of media coverage, in particular as to what is signaled to moderately attentive voters. When races are close, conventions can remind those who aren’t as plugged in that an election is happening, in addition to what the parties stand for, all while creating a familiar theater of politics.

There are also more subtle and interesting questions for parties about what happens when people don’t meet and have the kinds of informal interactions they usually do, and I think that could mean changes in the ways that parties handle internal conflicts that will have small but long-term effects.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, for me it’s coverage, coverage, coverage. That’s probably going to be the biggest casualty of a remote convention, among the other things that Nathaniel and Julia mentioned.

How a shortage of sand could delay coronavirus vaccine l FiveThirtyEight

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”