WASHINGTON — Joe Biden acknowledged Wednesday that he would not appear in Milwaukee to accept the presidential nomination he has sought on and off since the 1980s, bowing to the realities of a pandemic that has altered every aspect of life in 2020, including the November contest.
The decision to cancel major in-person appearances at the Democratic National Convention 90 days before the election, at the recommendation of health officials, was the final blow to the prospect that the fall campaign would resemble anything remotely like a traditional presidential contest, as the country confronts more than 150,000 deaths from the virus and cases continue to rise in parts of the country.
“The conventions as we traditionally have known them are no more,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairperson who oversaw the party’s 2000 and 2004 conventions. “They will be more interactive and more digital, with more on social media.”
Other than the party chairperson, Tom Perez, a small handful of Democratic officials will travel to Milwaukee from out of state to attend the convention. Some Wisconsin officials may deliver speeches from the crowd-free soundstage at the city’s convention center, where Biden was to deliver his nomination acceptance speech. He will now do that from his home state, Delaware.
President Donald Trump and Republicans, who have careened from moving most of their convention from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, to canceling the made-for-TV portion of their event, have been slower to give up on the prospect of an in-person convention despite the serious health risks, and 336 delegates are still set to gather in North Carolina.
Party conventions once had a different kind of drama to them.
Much to the chagrin of political junkies, the days of convention floor flights over who would be a party’s presidential nominee are long past. Not since 1980, when Edward M. Kennedy forced a vote to free delegates from a commitment to President Jimmy Carter, has there been any real question about whom a major party would nominate, although Trump did face some opposition from Republicans at his convention in 2016.
In recent years, convention week has meant prime-time televised addresses from famous names and up-and-comers, highly produced balloon drops and delegates in patriotic regalia, all as a way to introduce voters to the candidate and to kick off the general election. It was a place to conduct party business, and also to throw actual parties — lavish events to reward donors and bigwigs, where celebrities mingled with state party chairs.
An introduction is less essential than ever in 2020, with both major candidates universally known by the American electorate, but Democrats still need to engage volunteers and flatter their foot soldiers, while communicating with a screen-weary homebound American electorate.
“Can you get a bounce? Yes,” said Leah D. Daughtry, who ran the party’s 2008 and 2016 conventions. “Can you make it interesting? That’s the challenge. You’ve got to make it interesting.”
Although a virtual convention will be a challenge, Democrats argued Wednesday that the decision to forgo an in-person address reinforced a sharp contrast Biden has been pressing throughout the public health crisis: He takes the coronavirus outbreak seriously, and Trump does not. It is critical, allies have said, that Biden serve as a role model who adheres firmly to the public health guidelines Trump has often flouted.
“I’ve wanted to set an example as to how we should respond individually to this crisis,” Biden said at a fundraiser Wednesday. “Science matters.”
Trump is sure to suggest that Biden, who has done very little in-person campaigning since the pandemic hit, is simply hiding back in his home state, even though for the millions expected to watch his address on television and other screens, the experience of seeing Biden from a soundstage in Delaware will not be much different from it would have been in an empty convention center in Milwaukee.
For Trump, an August convention was seen as an opportunity to demonstrate that the country was firmly on the path to economic recovery, having vanquished the pandemic. Trump’s allies moved cities to ensure they could give the president the look and feel of a pre-virus coronation.
But now, with just weeks to go before the president accepts his renomination, and plans in two separate cities foiled, Republicans are still tossing out ambitious ideas of how to create a spectacle that will appeal to Trump’s supporters and earn high ratings on television.
Both Biden and Trump are visibly energized by crowds, and advisers must consider how they can deliver convention-bump-inducing speeches without roaring audiences, or in Biden’s case, even the smattering of party officials who could have made the journey to Wisconsin.Democratic donors who are not traveling to Milwaukee will soon receive swag bags in the mail that are filled with commemorative pins, buttons and the formal credentials that would have been waiting for them at their hotels.
Some fundraisers and donors had the option of “convention packages” that promise activities like “taste of the trail” (for donating $250,000), a “preferred convention welcome kit” ($100,000) or “afternoon briefings and other convention week daytime content” ($50,000 and up) — despite the largely virtual nature of the festivities.
The decision to keep Biden away from what was left of the Milwaukee convention — an event that in June was moved out of the city’s basketball arena to a smaller convention center, while delegates were told to stay home — came after epidemiologists determined it would not be safe for even 300 people to gather in one place from across the country.
“When it became clear in past days that the pandemic was not abating, we took these actions,” Perez said in an interview Wednesday. “We have an absolutely top-shelf team of people producing the convention and while it will be different from any convention before, I think it has real possibility to be more exciting and exhilarating than ever before.”
Moving the remaining convention segments planned for Milwaukee is a blow to the city, which has lost the chance to show how pleasant Wisconsin summers are to a global audience — and the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact envisioned when Perez awarded the city the convention in 2018.
“I completely understand the decision,” said Alex Lasry, the finance chairman for the convention’s host committee, but he added he was deeply disappointed for the city.“For us to go there in person, we would put a whole bunch of people from Milwaukee and surrounding areas in harm’s way — not going to do that,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who is a co-chairman of Biden’s campaign. “The convention is a big TV production anyway. We’re still going to have that, we’ll still have our speakers, make our case for why Joe Biden should be the next president.”
While Biden will formally accept the nomination from Delaware, other Democrats will appear on television screens from satellite locations from across the country. Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of the John Kerry and Barack Obama presidential campaigns, is still in the process of filling the two hours of nightly airtime.
Wisconsin officials are still expected to give speeches at the convention center in downtown Milwaukee, but leading Democrats, including Obama, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, are expected to deliver their addresses from elsewhere.
Hours after Democrats announced their entire convention would be conducted virtually, the Republican National Convention released health protocols for its scaled-back party gathering, which plans for 336 delegates to meet for four days in Charlotte in late August.
The Republican proposal includes “pre-travel COVID-19 testing of all participants before arrival in Charlotte,” temperature checks, social distancing and mask-wearing. The Democratic convention had required everyone inside the convention’s security perimeter to test negative for the virus each day before entry.
The conventions may be traditional in only this way: marking the start to a fall campaign that, like everything else this year, will be different from any other in modern American history.
The get-out-the-vote effort won’t have armies of volunteers knocking on doors to remind voters to go to the polls. Instead it will mean countless texts and phone calls and video chats to show people the proper procedures to apply for and send back an absentee ballot — and for some voters, in states like Wisconsin that have more restrictive vote-by-mail laws, how to find a legal witness to co-sign their ballot envelope so it can be counted.
For 2020, the days of neighbor-to-neighbor in-person campaigning are essentially over.
“You don’t even want to try,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman. “You don’t want to upset the voter. The easiest way to lose a voter is to anger them by exposing them to COVID-19.”