Parties scramble to make national conventions work in the age of coronavirus

The 2016 Republican National Convention was held in Cleveland.
The 2016 Republican National Convention was held in Cleveland.DOUG MILLS/NYT

The coronavirus has already altered much of the 2020 presidential campaign. In-person fund-raisers have moved to Zoom. There have been no rallies for months, no door-knocking, no town halls, diner visits, factory tours, or rallies.

Now both major political parties are scrambling to rearrange what has typically been one of the most important moments in a general election campaign, when candidates take their uninterrupted message right to the American people: the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

The parties are “thinking about how they are going to work exactly at some basic levels,” said Steve Kerrigan, a Lancaster resident who served as chief executive of the Democratic National Convention in 2012. “Democrats are trying to reimagine what a convention can be. Republicans are largely trying to see if they can have a traditional convention.”


“Both parties know they need to get this right, and I suspect that a lot of people are still going to watch, if not more,” Kerrigan said.

Due to COVID’s social-distancing requirements, Democrats have pushed their convention in Milwaukee back a month. With less than 60 days to go, it is still unclear what events, if any, will still take place in person, and how comfortable delegates, who are generally older, will be with showing up.

The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee have said the former vice president will be in Milwaukee to accept the nomination, but they are trying to make many parts of the convention more digital in nature.

There is even more convention drama on the GOP side.

The Republican National Committee announced that it is moving nearly all of the flashy parts of its convention from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said he could not guarantee the full event would take place because of concerns about the coronavirus. After all, Cooper said in a letter to the Republican National Committee, “As much as we want the conditions surrounding COVID-19 to be favorable enough for you to hold the Convention you describe in late August, it is very unlikely,”


That lack of commitment to allow for the estimated 19,000-person gathering meant that Trump and the Republicans decided to look elsewhere.

“We are obviously going to put safety checks in place to make sure the convention-goers are safe, but we are going to have a packed arena,” said Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel on Fox News, explaining the move to Jacksonville. “We are going to recognize the renomination of our president as we go on to reelect him in November, and it’s going to be a great celebration.”

The business portion of the convention — like the ratification of a party platform and rules that govern the party and convention itself — will remain in Charlotte, though with many fewer delegates participating.

But those involved in the quick convention planning in Jacksonville don’t need to worry about just COVID. With massive protests against police brutality and systemic racism happening regularly across the country, Republicans also face the prospect of huge anti-Trump rallies.

And unlike in Charlotte, where security planning began over year ago, Jacksonville officials are just getting started.

This could lead to a split-screen moment like in 1968, when the Democratic convention had television broadcasts that covered both what was happening inside the convention hall in Chicago and the anti-war protesters outside the hall, who were tangling with police in riot gear.


“If something similar to 1968 were to happen in Jacksonville this year, I could see how it actually plays into Trump’s hands, given his law-and-order stance, and he can use them as a foil,” said John Pudner, a Republican consultant for 30 years who was involved in Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign.

There is another GOP twist: Several high-profile politicians, including from New England, are just staying away.

Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Governor Phil Scott of Vermont, and Senator Susan Collins of Maine all told the Globe they will not attend any portion of the Republican National Convention. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, too, has no plans to go at this time, according to a spokeswoman.

Despite all the drama and the potential for more, Kevin Madden, who was involved in planning Republican conventions in 2004 and 2012, said that these conventions could end up being positive for both candidates, Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

“Everyone is going to watch, and now it is a much more controlled environment,” Madden said.

After all, there are no Summer Olympics to compete with the August conventions. There is also little room for dissent in either convention hall, whether a sparsely attended Democratic one or a Republican one filled with those so devoted they are willing to potentially put themselves at risk of catching a deadly virus.

Four years ago, there was a movement to deny Trump the Republican nomination. And in Philadelphia, supporters of Bernie Sanders booed Hillary Clinton and walked out during portions of the convention in protest. But this year, even if there is internal opposition to the parties’ nominees, it is hard to see how that makes it on TV.


“Clearly the conventions this year will be reimagined, as will their traditional role in the campaign cycle,” Pudner said.

“Campaigns might have to let go of the idea they can use these events to engage the grass roots, but that cannot lose sight these could be the most important hours of the campaign this entire year. They know they have to get it right.”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.