Democrat, Republican conventions will be like none we’ve seen before


President Donald Trump addressed a crowd in Charlotte, North Carolina, after he was re-nominated by the GOP.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.

President Donald Trump and the Republicans on Wednesday continued the party’s national nominating convention, an event that arrives a week after Democrats pulled off a mostly virtual gathering and avoided technological glitches that could have come with the untested format.

The Republican National Convention has so far been a mixture of live and taped events that leans on in-person participation more heavily than the Democrats did. The GOP is conducting the “official business” of the convention live from its host city, Charlotte, North Carolina. By contrast, only a small number of the Democrats’ events included more than a few people in a room.

As the RNC opened on Monday, Trump addressed a crowd in Charlotte after delegates gathered in person to re-nominate him as the GOP candidate. On Tuesday, First Lady Melania Trump spoke in front of an audience at the White House Rose Garden and the president took part in a televised naturalization ceremony. Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday spoke to a crowd at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, followed by a performance of the national anthem by country singer Trace Adkins.

Production-wise, the biggest difference between the RNC and DNC has been the roll call, the cornerstone of political conventions, in which delegates from each of the nation’s states and territories vote for the party’s nominee. In normal times, it’s a raucous affair with arenas packed full of cheering people wearing star-spangled accessories and trinkets.  

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans held a traditional, if scaled down, version of the roll call. The committee sent six delegates from the 57 US states and territories to vote in person in Charlotte, for a total of 336 people. The delegates, who were tested for COVID-19 when they arrived in the city, practiced social distancing and received temperature checks. One by one they cast their state’s votes, standing in front of a white backdrop with the hashtag #RNC2020 printed on it. 

By contrast, Democrats last week took advantage of technology to fashion a virtual version of the roll call, with remote footage from each state and territory. Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell cast her state’s votes from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of an iconic civil rights march in 1965. A masked Rhode Island chef posed on the beach with a plate of calamari, instantly becoming a meme. The format yielded mostly favorable reviews, using the procedural election as a way to showcase America’s diversity and natural beauty. 

The different approaches underscore the unique challenges of the moment. Nothing about 2020 is normal, and the conventions are just the latest example of our new bizarro lives. Court cases are conducted online. School is held remotely. Baseball is played without fans in the stands. The Democrats and Republicans moving to unconventional formats is more evidence of how our world is intermediated by the internet, particularly during a pandemic that has already killed more than 175,000 Americans.

“The challenge lies in how these politicians will connect with viewers at home, through the TV or computer, when there’s no live audience,” said Kate Malloy, the creative director at New Hampshire-based Malloy Events.

National party conventions date back to the 1800s and were originally rowdy, spontaneous affairs filled with backroom deals and political horse trading. In 1924, the Democratic convention stretched nine days — the longest in US history — and required more than 100 rounds of voting and a couple of fistfights before a nominee, John Davis of West Virginia, was chosen. (Davis went on to lose to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.) It wasn’t until 1932 that the candidates themselves even started showing up. That year, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided he’d travel to Chicago to accept his nomination in person. Prior to that, candidates often felt showing up at the conventions was too presumptive.

Today, conventions are scripted, choreographed affairs where little, let alone the nominee, is up in the air. Still, the events are important…

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