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In 2020, conventions truly are about convening

The Wisconsin Center on Aug. 5, 2020, in

The Wisconsin Center on Aug. 5, 2020, in Milwaukee. Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe will not travel to Milwaukee to accept the Democratic presidential nomination because of concerns over the coronavirus, party officials said. Credit: AP/Morry Gash

It is unprecedented to have back-to-back virtual political conventions in a country that loves its time-honored tradition of gathering the party faithful to hobnob and formally select candidates for president.

As the Democratic National Convention gets underway in Milwaukee on Aug. 17, with the Republican National Convention starting the week after, Americans will be “watching” a new form of democracy. What is normally a packed convention floor at an arena is likely to be a series of packaged speeches and events, although some major political figures plan to attend.

In ordinary times, conventions matter both symbolically and substantively as political speeches and policies are unveiled and any last-minute party bickering gets sorted out. As with any major event, there is music and applause, kissing and hugging, and lots of partying. But these are not ordinary times: the COVID-19 pandemic requires social distancing, masks and limits on indoor gatherings. How each party handles that set of obstacles might say a lot about the candidates and approaches to governing.

Of the two presidential candidates, the bigger crowd-seeker is President Donald Trump, who, until recently, insisted upon filling every seat at this year’s Republican convention until the virus got in his way twice — in Florida and in North Carolina.

Trump and the Republican National Committee would love their convention to look like it did in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1976, when Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford brought the house down. The hall was so crowded that, according to historian Craig Shirley, a delegate broke her leg. The event drew gavel-to-gavel coverage.

Biden has not held large events since the pandemic outbreak and is likely not eager to see infections happen after his convention.

Leading up to the convention, Trump tried to build a crowd in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But his hyperinflated predictions of crowds for an indoor rally were challenged by the actual turnout. Instead of 20,000 attendees, there were 6,200 people. Then-campaign manager Brad Parscale was removed. Members of the organizing committee for the event came down with the coronavirus.

On the Republican side, large gatherings equate to adrenaline for Trump. In 2016, Trump promised a “record-setting” inauguration turnout. But attendance at the 2017 event visibly paled in comparison to Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Recall that the next day Trump’s then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” In fact, the crowd was significantly smaller. 

For the sake of our country, I hope August is a time of introspection. We need to build back American resilience and show off our democracy but in a way that is safe and secure.

Tara Sonenshine, former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is a public diplomacy fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.