As major events scheduled for this summer continue to be canceled nationwide, the Democratic National Committee has already pushed its convention back from July to August — and even that seems tenuous at best.
The path forward forks in a wide range of directions. With former Vice President Joe Biden now the presumptive nominee, some have called for the gathering to be canceled altogether, calling modern-day conventions little more than political theater. At the opposite end of the spectrum, DNC chairman Tom Perez has vowed to hold a traditional, in-person convention.
The possibility for a middle-of-the-road solution, a virtual convention, also has made headlines, with many top Democrats — including Biden himself — seeing this is a viable option given the coronavirus pandemic.
A virtual convention makes a lot of sense. What hasn’t been fully explored is why.
First, the obvious: with the coronavirus pandemic still raging, Americans are overwhelmingly cautious about even a gradual reopening of the economy and, even more tellingly, 7 in 10 say they won’t attend a sporting event — a crowded mass gathering akin to a convention — until a vaccine is discovered.
For the DNC, a business-as-usual in-person convention — or even a scaled-down one — risks both public health crisis and public relations disaster; the former could occur if crowds gather as scheduled and an outbreak ensues, the latter if delegates decide not to attend for safety reasons. Republicans, of course, will exploit either scenario, painting Democrats as either a party with blood on its hands or one whose policies are so unpopular that its own supporters won’t show up for its marquee event.
While completely cancelling the convention obviously eliminates public health risk, the notion that Democrats should cede the summer stage to President Donald Trump is absurd. Republicans will certainly hold a convention, in-person or otherwise, and with the pandemic monopolizing news coverage Biden is already experiencing visibility problems. Without a counterpoint to what will surely be a Republican propaganda festival, Trump will be free to lie, cast blame and, most important, unilaterally enjoy the inevitable polling bump conventions typically produce.
A virtual convention, of course, brings neither of these potential pitfalls. Americans can watch the goings-on, political theater or not, from the comfort of their homes, with Democrats able to deliver their pitch to a public with understandably tamped-down expectations given the extenuating circumstances.
And unlike an in-person event, a virtual convention always marginalizes a large, potentially embarrassing factor: Bernie bros.
The 2016 Democratic convention was a disaster, with Sanders’ stubborn supporters staging disruptive protests. Though the nomination build-up is less tense this time around, a cyber-convention virtually eliminates any high-profile display of lingering party fissures.
A virtual event avoids the prospect of duct tape with “SILENCED BY THE DNC” scrawled in sharpie becoming the 2020 Democratic Convention version of an N95 mask. As a bonus, it will show Sen. Bernie Sanders’ overwhelmingly young supporters that an institution they consider outdated and stodgy, the Democratic Party, can orchestrate a tech-centric 21st Century forum that, among other innovations, could include a cyber town hall with the nominee — a platform in which the folksy, relatable Biden has excelled.
Finally, a virtual convention fits the man to the moment. While Americans have seen enough of “the good Joe” Biden lately — most notably during his impressive one-on-one debate with Sanders in mid-March — to douse rumors of cognitive decline, it is undeniable that the 77-year-old has lost a step or two as he seeks to become by far the oldest first-term president in American history.
Simply put, a virtual convention is a controlled environment that works decisively in the Democratic candidate’s favor. Even in his younger years, Biden was never the best public speaker, prone to winding tangents and hindered by a stutter he has worked tirelessly and inspiringly to overcome, albeit incompletely.
Whereas the last Democratic president was an inexperienced politician with exemplary oratory skills, Joe Biden is an exemplary politician with experienced oratory skills. He can nail a message, but may need a few takes for it to come out right.
Given Biden’s gift for connecting with voters in one-on-one settings, a virtual town hall could showcase his ability to think on his feet while the coup de grace – the all-important nomination acceptance speech – could be recorded prior to airing. This scenario could prove Democrats equally adept at a political virtue their general election opponent has long since mastered: showmanship.
While seeing opportunity in a pandemic seems politically opportunistic, political conventions are opportunistic things. Given the circumstances, Democrats should see the prospect of a virtual convention as a chance to stick the landing in the party’s most important campaign event. Anything less is looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Christopher Dale is a freelance writer who writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues.