If the first night of a virtual national political convention taught us anything Monday it is this: the next two weeks of presidential politics will be weird.
The joke in the past has been that these conventions were basically free infomercials every four years, packaged as some type of major news event. But with the event itself removed because of the coronavirus, the first night of the Democratic National Convention was just an infomercial—and much of it was simply bad television.
This is not the fault of the organizers. They are forced to make lemonade out of a bad situation. And if the national TV networks are going to just give your party free, uninterrupted airtime, then it would be malpractice not to piece together something to fill it.
For those who were watching the NBA and NHL playoffs, Netflix or just enjoying a nice cool, New England night in August, here are three takeaways from the first night of the virtual Democratic convention.
1. Almost no one is in Milwaukee
The fact that virtually no one was actually in the city where the convention was supposed to be held shouldn’t be that surprising to anyone who keeps up on the news. But it was jarring nonetheless to see only two speakers from Wisconsin and have the entire first evening anchored in Los Angeles by an actress.
However, by doing so, the Democratic National Committee admitted something obvious: this week is a completely made for television event. So they might as well go with a television star to kick things off.
The so-called convention bounced around like a Zoom call, from Minneapolis to Michigan to Maine to New Orleans and Arizona and Texas and Vermont. Locally, Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton appeared briefly singing the praises of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden along with those who also unsuccessfully ran in the 2020 Democratic primaries. (Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is scheduled to speak Wednesday night, while former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick wasn’t given a slot, but did give a provocative speech to the New Hampshire delegation over Zoom on Monday.) The only other reference to Massachusetts came during a tribute to those who died of COVID-19, including Boston public relations titan Larry Rasky, who was close to Biden.
2. No emotional core
By going the virtual route, two things were evident at the beginning. First, there was no lag time from speakers shuttling on and off an arena podium. A crazy amount of time at the political conventions are spent on that. Second, the lack of an audience changes a lot.
The evening lacked the emotional response it could have had. Remember how Gold Star dad Khizr Khan had a spontaneous emotional connection to the audience at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia four years ago and created a powerful moment? Imagine the response for George Floyd’s brothers if they had appeared before a crowd Monday. Instead, they spoke in a removed intimacy with a taped performance from their living room. The same with a young woman from Arizona, Kristin Urquiza, who may have stolen the night of a traditional convention talking about the death of her Trump-following father to the coronavirus.
“His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump,” Urquiza said. It was a line that blew up social media but lacked a more emotional connection in front of an audience
3. Headliners are suddenly less of a thing
Take away the audience and the party also loses the chance to heap adulation and credibility upon its biggest stars to make the case for their presidential candidate. The DNC tried to portray a fully ideological spectrum of Biden voters, from Republicans like former Ohio governor John Kasich to fellow Midwesterner Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and concluding with former first lady Michelle Obama.
All said the right words for Democrats. Particularly Obama, who, while praising Biden, went after President Trump with a scathing critique of his performance in a job she said “reveals who you are.”
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” she said. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”
But because it is virtual, it is hard to see if the words will really unite the party or the country. Further, because the speeches were mostly taped, there is no urgency for voters to actually watch the speeches when they are released every night. And certainly no reason to watch them unless they get some buzz, no matter how big the name.
But maybe one of these nights someone will figure out how to breakthrough.