The Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, long mainstays of the US presidential election cycle, have been forced online, creating the biggest test yet for conducting life remotely during the coronavirus.
Robbed of the energy of convention halls, the parties will seek to re-create that enthusiasm in high-production streaming events that beam their luminaries from around the country to online audiences. The Democrats, whose convention begins on Monday after a roughly month-long delay, have lined up the party's most visible figures, including former President Barack Obama. The Republicans, who will make their case for four more years in the White House, grab the spotlight on Aug. 24.
Done with savvy and pizzazz, the Democrats and Republicans could galvanize support for their candidates -- former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, respectively -- despite the absence of cheering crowds, over-amplified rock music and blizzards of confetti. If technical glitches hobble the proceedings, the parties risk broadcasting a mammoth Zoom call derailed by freezes, connection mishaps and mute fails.
"For decades, the conventions have been splashy media events that have always involved an awful lot of choreography," said James McCann, a professor of political science at Purdue University in Indiana. "The challenge will be whether they can replicate or devise some functional equivalent virtually to create that excitement."
Nothing about 2020 is normal, and the conventions are just the latest example of our new bizarro lives. Court cases are conducted online. School is held remotely. Baseball is played without fans in the stands. The Democrats and Republicans moving to virtual conventions is more evidence of how our world is intermediated by the internet, particularly during a pandemic that has already killed more than 166,000 Americans.
National party conventions date back to the 1800s and were originally raucous, spontaneous affairs filled with backroom deals and political horse trading. In 1924, the Democratic convention stretched nine days -- the longest in US history -- and required more than 100 rounds of voting and a couple of fistfights before a nominee, John Davis of West Virginia, was chosen. (Davis went on to lose to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.) It wasn't until 1932 that the candidates themselves even started showing up. That year, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided he'd travel to Chicago to accept his nomination in person. Prior to that, candidates often felt showing up at the conventions was too presumptive.
Today, conventions are scripted, choreographed affairs where little, let alone the nominee, is up in the air. Still, the events are important for generating excitement and introducing the country to up-and-coming political stars. This time around, organizers will have to balance a host of moving parts: live-streamed speeches, in-person voting, and the health and safety issues that will inevitably arise in producing a professional blend of messaging and entertainment during COVID. Conventions are designed to engage and energize voters. It's an open question whether that can be accomplished without the fanfare and pageantry that normally accompany these events....
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