Doing Away With Convention


Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

As my colleague Astead Herndon put it today: Is it still a convention if no one convenes?

For decades, the national party conventions have been a place where political careers can be launched — or laughed off the stage. Where connections are made and deals cut. Where you learn that yes, you can survive for four days on no sleep, 17,000 Diet Cokes and the incomparable thrill that comes from being reintroduced to someone you’ve met every four years for the last two decades.

This year, the conventions might amount to a lesson in learning how to use that mute button on Zoom.

Today, Democrats announced that their convention would be nearly entirely virtual. On the advice of health officials working for the party, Joe Biden plans to accept the nomination from his home state, Delaware — forgoing a trip to the convention’s host city, Milwaukee.

So much of this extraordinary campaign season has tested the shibboleths of American politics. How much does door knocking matter? What about holding campaign rallies? Or even visiting key battleground states?

Now, we’re about to see whether Americans really care about a big, expensive blowout that’s been part of the political firmament for decades.

Conventions are not easy, or inexpensive, affairs. All those balloons don’t come cheap: Four years ago, both parties blew through more than $100 million in private donations and taxpayer dollars.

For the campaign officials, staff members and party faithful who attend, it’s a boffo time. Four days of watching history happen, along with a heavy dose of partying, networking and politicking.

“You start out in heels and you end up in flip-flops,” Senator Kamala Harris told me a few weeks ago, citing her decades of experience attending Democratic conventions. “People are singing and they’re dancing and they’re crying, and it’s all of the emotions that come with caring about your country and wanting to fight to make it better.”

Flare-ups do happen, typically in the form of debates over the party platform and some mild activist insurrection about the nominee. But almost always, the nomination is wrapped up weeks before the convention happens. (When I wrote a piece about the possibility of a contested convention this year, I heard a whole lot of grumbling from Democratic operatives who complained that I was indulging in fantasy politics. They had a point: The party’s last contested convention happened in 1952, when the nominee was Adlai Stevenson.)

So basically, the reward for all that work and all that spending is a television audience of millions, newly energized supporters and a short-lived bump in the polls.

With Americans spending more time at home, the audience could easily be larger than the 32 million people who watched Donald J. Trump’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican convention. Yet political strategists expect the fleeting polling bounce to be smaller.

That might have happened even under better circumstances: In recent cycles, “convention bumps” have been shrinking, most likely a result of our polarized politics. There are fewer swing voters generally, so fewer people to convince with a splashy show.

The lack of a big summer opportunity to change the trajectory of the race is part of the reason the Trump campaign has begun pushing for more debates. Today, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani called on the Commission on Presidential Debates to add a fourth matchup to the calendar. By Mr. Giuliani’s count, as many as eight million Americans in 16 states will have already started voting by Sept. 29, when the candidates are scheduled to meet for the first debate.

As for his convention, Mr. Trump has floated the idea of accepting the nomination from the White House lawn, after his decision last month to cancel the event in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s the easiest alternative. I think it’s a beautiful alternative,” he said in an interview on “Fox & Friends” today, prompting immediate condemnation from congressional leaders in both parties, who doubted the legality of such an spectacle.

For the candidates, the downgrading of their conventions probably feels akin to canceling their bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras and Christmas morning — combined.

Mr. Trump refused to let his dream of a flashy event die for months — even moving it from North Carolina to Florida in hopes of escaping coronavirus restrictions.

And few know conventions better than Mr. Biden, who’s attended them for decades. Though he told donors today that going remote was the “right thing to do,” the prospect of giving the biggest speech of his life from home has to be a letdown.

That sentiment, at least, will certainly resonate with voters. In our coronavirus times, disappointment has become far more relatable than grabbing a beer.


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My colleague Carl Hulse, a legend of the Capitol Hill press corps, just sat down with Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to talk about pandemic relief negotiations. Mr. McConnell currently finds himself caught between endangered Republicans desperate to pass legislation and other Republicans who are fine with doing nothing.

Here’s some of what Carl heard from Mr. McConnell:

Asked today about criticism by Democrats that he had relegated himself to the sidelines by not taking part in face-to-face negotiations over the pandemic relief package, Mr. McConnell had a biting response.

“It eliminates sitting there and having to listen to Pelosi and Schumer’s talking points, which gets in the way of serious discussion,” he said, referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, who are in talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff. “Meadows and Mnuchin are not hiding the ball from me, and I’m not hiding the ball from my colleagues.”

In the past, Mr. McConnell famously related how he could not endure being lectured to by Barack Obama when he was president. He said taking part in the talks between Democrats and the White House would be counterproductive at this point.

“This particular approach gets the best chance to get an outcome without all the sparring back and forth that would inevitably result from my sitting across from Nancy and Chuck,” Mr. McConnell said.


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