WASHINGTON — Three months before their national convention is to kick off in Milwaukee, Democratic Party officials are planning for three scenarios depending on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic at the time. But the planners face a substantial problem in putting on the quadrennial event that is recognizable to Americans as the traditional launch of the presidential general election campaign: Many of the delegates don’t want to go.
Interviews with 59 members of the Democratic National Committee and superdelegates who will formally nominate former Vice President Joe Biden in August found that the vast majority of them don’t want to risk their own health or the health of others by traveling to Milwaukee and congregating inside the convention facilities.
The reluctance was spread across all age groups and expressed by both longtime delegates and would-be first-time attendees. Even those who plan to go have reservations; one said he would haul his own boat from Tennessee and stay on Lake Michigan rather than risk a hotel room.
“I have heard from people who have gone to many conventions, people who are die-hards, saying, ‘I’m not going to that,’ ” said David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman. “One thing that may drive the decision is people saying they’re not going to go.”
For now, Democratic officials responsible for the convention have outlined three contingencies, people familiar with the planning say: a full convention, if health conditions permit; a mostly virtual convention that features a limited in-person presence in Milwaukee, or an entirely remote convention.
The uncertainty surrounding their convention puts Democrats in stark contrast with Republicans, who at President Donald Trump’s urging are moving “full steam ahead” in planning their convention, which is scheduled for Charlotte, North Carolina, the week after the Democratic event. On Saturday the Republican National Committee said “nearly 50,000 visitors” would gather for the GOP convention.
The diverging approaches are part of the growing partisan divide over the coronavirus, with Democrats urging caution and respect for public health officials while Republicans are increasingly following Trump, whose skepticism about the virus and enthusiasm for reopening the nation’s economy have driven some states to end stay-at-home mandates.
“I can understand why people are more drawn to a message that gives a sense that trouble is behind us and the show must go on, but we have been and will always be transparent and honest with people about our planning,” said Joe Solmonese, the chief executive of the Democratic National Convention. “As often as not, that means the answer is we don’t know. It doesn’t feel as good as when you say, ‘We are certain and we’re plowing full speed ahead,’ but it’s the truth.”
Of the 59 delegates interviewed in the last week, nine said they are planning to attend the convention. Just seven said they’d made travel arrangements to get to Milwaukee and only two said they believe it will be safe to travel to and attend the event.
Delegates said they are worried about the implications of riding public transportation to the convention site and requiring thousands of hotel and arena employees in Milwaukee to work on their behalf in potentially unsafe conditions. They are also concerned about the possibility that people from around the country who come from coronavirus hot spots will spread the virus in Wisconsin.
And while many of the delegates are in their 60s and 70s, age groups particularly vulnerable to the virus, younger Democrats expressed just as much concern about the public health implications of a mass gathering.
“As sad as I am to be missing out on my first convention, I know that the safer and more responsible thing is to not gather in large numbers,” said Sierra Yamanaka, a 25-year-old DNC member from Arizona. “It would be devastating to the Democratic organizations across the country if there were to be an outbreak there.”
The possibility that Republicans would put on a full convention, with an arena thronged with cheering Trump supporters, the week after a scaled-down Democratic event to nominate Biden, has DNC members concerned that Democrats will further cede the political spotlight and momentum to Trump, who already enjoys the advantage of the presidential bully pulpit.
If much of the Democratic convention is virtual, or if Biden himself remains quarantined in his Delaware home, planners will be left to produce an event for television without its star attraction.
“The unknown factor of a virtual convention is, how many people will get excited about seeing an acceptance speech from a basement with only a few people in the room?” said William Owen, a DNC member from Tennessee who plans to attend the event if it is held. He said he had reserved a slip on Lake Michigan and plans to haul his boat to Milwaukee to avoid staying in one of the city’s hotels.
Over the years, the three major broadcast networks, the largest driver of viewers to party conventions, have slowly shrunk their prime time footprint at these events. The lack of a physical gathering spot is likely to extend that pattern. Without the familiar hallmarks of a traditional convention, other benefits of TV coverage like interviews with prominent officials and delegates would be lost.
While network executives cautioned that no decisions had been made, several said that reducing coverage to the convention’s final two nights was a possibility.
One network executive suggested that by August, the novelty of a live broadcast like a convention could appeal to programmers stuck with few live sporting events and dwindling options for prime time entertainment, and with production on hold for many popular network shows.
The Biden campaign said it is delaying decisions about how large a footprint it will have in Milwaukee until more is known about the pandemic.
“We are considering a variety of formats for this to take place, but we are certain that in the end it will capture the enthusiasm and spirit that we have to making Donald Trump a one-term president and transforming our country,” said a Biden spokesman, Bill Russo.
With an eye toward attracting network coverage, DNC members said the convention could emulate recent television events like the annual WrestleMania extravaganza, which was televised from a studio without fans in Orlando, Florida, and the National Football League’s draft, which aired from the homes of the league’s executives, coaches and drafted players.
The convention is being planned by the veteran producer Ricky Kirshner, who has produced each Democratic National Convention since 1992 in addition to Super Bowl halftime shows and the Tony Awards. Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist who worked on the campaigns of John Kerry and Barack Obama, is putting together the program of speakers, work that typically isn’t completed until the final month before the convention.
But because of the virus, some decisions will need to be made in the coming weeks. Veterans of past national conventions said it takes two months to retrofit an arena — everything from building a podium to laying cables and wiring.
The DNC chairman, Tom Perez, has acknowledged privately that the scope of the convention will be far smaller than originally anticipated, which could move the event out of the Fiserv Forum, the city’s pro basketball arena, to a nearby theater or convention center, if it becomes clear that not enough delegates will travel to fill the seats. Perez, whose wife grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs, has insisted the convention will not move out of the city.
Solmonese said it is too soon to make a decision about which venue will host the convention. Mayor Tom Barrett said Milwaukee remains eager to host national Democrats and is being “nimble” with organizers.
“It’s not as though you have dozens of other events that need to be canceled to make room for this,” Barrett said.
Democrats believe the potential of days of network television exposure may be more important for Biden than it has for any candidate in decades. The former vice president has not made a public appearance outside his Delaware home since the final Democratic primary debate two months ago.
And while Biden and his team trumpet the number of people who have consumed the campaign’s content online, officials acknowledge the difficult balance between chasing an audience on network television and risking exacerbating the public health crisis.
Solmonese said he’s less concerned with the Nielsen ratings of the convention and more about how Biden’s message will be received among the smaller slice of the electorate that will be critical to winning an Electoral College victory.
“How many people watch it on the traditional networks is important, but we are focused on how many of the people that we need in the four or five states that we need to win can we reach,” he said, adding that it was important “that we get that content into the hands of the people most important to a victory for Joe Biden in November.”
Democratic officials have already taken the first steps toward preparing for a truncated convention; last week, the party’s rules committee voted to give authority to Solmonese to limit the size and scope of the gathering, if necessary. At the same time, Perez, in an email last week, gave explicit permission to DNC members and delegates to skip the travel to Milwaukee and vote on the party’s platform and rules remotely.
DNC members interviewed expressed confidence in the party’s ability to put on a largely remote convention, as many state parties have done in recent weeks. But they expressed little appetite for attending a mass gathering.
“You think about all of the ways a convention has to be done, I don’t see how it could be done in-person in August,” said Alexis Wiley, a DNC member from Detroit. “I’m pregnant, so I’m high risk. I really want to participate, but in such a vulnerable category, it doesn’t make sense to even risk it.”