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17 August 2020

Three things to watch for at the Democrats’ virtual National Convention

Will the Biden campaign take the opportunity to clearly articulate its electoral promises?

By Emily Tamkin

The Democratic National Convention kicks off on Monday, 17 August. Or, rather, something in place of the Democratic National Convention kicks off. The convention was supposed to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — a state Hillary Clinton famously declined to visit and then lost in 2016 — but, as the global pandemic hits the United States spectacularly hard, the key players in this drama will not actually convene. Even Joe Biden, former vice president and presumptive nominee, will not be flying to America’s most cheese producing state.

Still, it will be worth tuning into at least part of the Democratic National pseudo-Convention, if only to see the following:

1. If there’s a convention and no one convenes, does it make a sound?

It will be interesting to see how the Democrats navigate the logistics of a virtual convening. Who will pre-record their addresses (other than Michelle Obama, who has already said she’ll do so to avoid any technical difficulties)? Who will need to be told that they’re on mute? Will people speak in their offices and living rooms or will they choose to use goofy, patriotic backgrounds? What happened to that idea of having a holographic Biden over Mount Rushmore?

And perhaps most saliently, will the Democratic candidate still get the traditional post-convention bump in the polls?

2. What will the balance be between the progressive wing of the party and the conservative-leaning “Never Trumpers”?

Much ado has already been made of the fact that both Michael Bloomberg, who was a Republican before running an incredibly expensive campaign in the Democratic primary (for his troubles, he won American Samoa), and former governor John Kasich, who ran in the Republican presidential primary four years ago, both get speaking time at the convention  while first-term member of Congress and progressive superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets just 60 seconds.

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A new CBS poll says that 63 percent of Democrats want to hear from Ocasio-Cortez, while just 38 percent want to hear from Kasich, leading progressives to wonder why the party appears to want to earn the votes of disgruntled Republicans more than it does those who lean left in the party.

With the speaking order set, it’s worth watching how the two wings of the party — progressive and moderate — try to shape the narrative within the convention, and whether it seems both are brought into the fold or if Democrats highlight rising stars of the party in a keynote and leave it at that.

3. Does the Democrat campaign have a strong pro-Biden message?

The Biden campaign has, thus far, laid largely low. That’s been working; Biden is ahead in the polls, and over half of voters who said they are for Biden said it is because they don’t like Trump and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The convention is an opportunity for the campaign to change that, and to put forth an active vision for the country that’s more than “not Trump”. If Biden is elected, he’ll be inaugurated, in all likelihood, during a pandemic, a recession and a country divided about what the path forward should be. Millions of Americans are looking to the government for help; what they see at present is a Congress in recess (though they are, in fairness, returning for an emergency hearing on the post office) and a president angrily tweeting about daytime television shows and threatening to sabotage an upcoming election by refusing to fund the postal service.

The campaign had a big day last week with its announcement of Kamala Harris as running mate; it was apparently their best fundraising day so far. But while for the candidates, a campaign might be about raising money and poll numbers, for the American people it is about the promises made.

The Biden campaign has an opportunity to clearly articulate its promise over the next four days. Whether or not it takes it is another matter.