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Democratic National Convention: 5 things to watch for

Is it actually a national political convention if nobody convenes? We are about to find out. The four-night Democratic National Convention gets underway today in … cyberspace.

Plans for tens of thousands of delegates, reporters and assorted other political junkies to assemble in Milwaukee for the event were scrapped amid concerns about spreading the coronavirus. Even presumptive nominees Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California won’t venture to Wisconsin, opting instead to deliver their acceptance speeches from a locked-down convention hall near Biden’s Delaware home.

No crowds, no hordes of delegates waving signs and no massive drop of balloons at the finale. Does that mean no convention bounce? Party leaders hope not. They argue that this event will be more inclusive, not less. The live audience may be gone, but so too are the high-dollar fundraisers, swarms and gobs of corporate money bankrolling the proceedings. Finally, a convention for the people. And all they had to do was tell the people not to come.

Here’s what to look for.

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Will the networks stick with it? There hasn’t been a contested convention in some time, and commercial network executives have griped about the lack of drama almost every four years. This year could be worse. For example, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks on the opening night Monday, but there’s no chance of the sort of ruckus his disappointed delegates might have caused in a packed convention hall. Similarly, the scattered protests that erupted recently at the news that Republican John Kasich, the former Ohio governor, also would speak Monday won’t be heard at a virtual convention. If viewers don’t stick around for this year’s entire broadcast, the networks could bail on big chunks of it. But the cable networks will likely stay tuned. Democrats plan a mix of programming. While scripted speeches delivered in quiet rooms may have limited appeal, Democrats also promise slick videos to grab viewers during the broadcasts (from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Pacific each night).

A virtual DNC: Democrats have cancelled their massive in-person gathering in Milwaukee, but the speeches will be on screens across the country.

Generation gap: Biden’s choice of Harris as his vice presidential running mate fused some much-needed vigor and diversity onto a Democratic ticket headed by a 77-year-old white man who has been in politics longer than half the voters have been alive. But the lineup of speakers does not exactly scream “new guard” at a time when the party is desperate to energize young voters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Former presidential nominee, senator and secretary of state John F. Kerry. Bill and Hillary Clinton. Even Sanders, the marquee speaker representing progressives, is a 78-year-old who has suffered two heart attacks. A 45-year-old former rival to Biden for the Democratic nomination — Julián Castro, the former housing secretary — didn’t even make the lineup. Can the megastar Obamas — Michelle on Monday; the former president on Wednesday — and 30-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx stir up enough enthusiasm among millennials and Generation Zers to make them feel this is their party, too?

Bernie Sanders delegates go into the DNC with less animosity and ‘more leverage’ as Joe Biden and the Democratic Party aim to unify the party.

Ideological bookends: Unlike the Republican Party, which plays wholly to the political right wing, Democratic Party leaders will make the widest possible appeal, balancing speakers from the left end of the party to at least one Republican, Kasich. The grumbling about his high-profile speaking slot reflects his notoriety among many Democrats as an anti-abortion Republican who worked to undermine their agenda for much of his career. But Kasich, now a “Never Trumper,” built his coalition in Ohio around the moderate suburban swing-voters who are crucial to Democrats winning back key states in the Midwest. His presence is a signal that there is a place for those voters in the party. And the virtual format will allow him to telegraph that message without those watching hearing the boos from left-wing party activists at private watch parties.

Breakout star? Conventions can be an opportunity to showcase an up-and-coming star of the party. Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote speech electrified the convention hall and the nation, launching the young Illinois state legislator out of obscurity and onto the path of becoming leader of the free world, and one of the most popular politicians of the era. Would the speech have been so effective had it been delivered to a near-empty room? No Democratic convention speaker has replicated the magic of that address. This cycle, the speakers may not even try — there will be no single keynote; 17 speeches from party up-and-comers will take its place. But at least they could have low expectations on their side.

Hope and change? Or just hope for a return to normalcy? It’s a convention, if only a virtual one, so the party’s big themes will come up a lot. Some progressives will talk about a Green New Deal, and others will push Medicare for all, though Biden has stopped short of fully endorsing the initiatives. He has kept his campaign simple from the start, pushing a mantra of restoring the soul of America and presenting himself as the steady hand who can guide the nation through the pandemic, the resulting recession and the movement for racial justice. His muted demeanor has served him well over recent months; President Trump has made one unforced error after another, and the polls steadily moved in Biden’s favor. Can he just cruise through the convention? Biden has been around for so long, maybe he doesn’t need an introduction or reboot — most voters already know what he’s about. Yet many, especially younger voters, do not. The “convention” is meant to introduce him, as well as Harris, who’s little known beyond California, to the country, and to power the campaign for the final sprint to Nov. 3.


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