Faced with coronavirus, Republican and Democratic leaders overhaul convention plans
WASHINGTON – Now that the Republican National Committee has chosen Jacksonville, Florida, as the new backdrop for President Donald Trump's speech accepting his party's 2020 nomination, the stage is set for the big party that the president so badly wanted.
With balloons, confetti and an auditorium packed with MAGA hat-wearing Trump fans, the setting is meant to advance the president's new campaign theme, "The Great American Comeback," as he pushes for the full reopening of the nation's economy even as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
The Republican National Convention, set for Aug. 24-27, will build off the campaign rallies that Trump is holding again starting with Tulsa, Oklahoma, next week. The goal: choreograph a sharp contrast with the Democratic National Convention that's set to take place one week earlier, Aug. 17-20, in Milwaukee.
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Although still clouded by uncertainty in the era of COVID-19, radically different conventions are coming into focus.
Democrats said they are working with Milwaukee and Wisconsin officials and intend to follow safety guidelines, as opposed to RNC officials who bolted Charlotte, North Carolina, for Trump's speech after state and city leaders sought a scaled-back convention. The DNC's approach matches the message of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has chastised Trump for not listening to public health experts during the pandemic.
That gives Democrats an opportunity as well – to show they are taking the coronavirus crisis seriously and feel the pain of those struggling, while Trump carries on with business as usual.
The Democratic National Committee intends to maintain a presence in Milwaukee, with the city's arena, Fiserv Forum, still locked in as the convention campus. But party officials haven't said whether that will include Biden's acceptance speech, or how many other top Democrats and delegates will attend.
More:Democrats ponder the political pros and cons of an unprecedented shift toward a more virtual convention
Regardless, don't expect an auditorium packed to the rafters as Democrats adhere to social distancing.
Some have speculated about a "virtual convention" – a combination of Zoom meetings and live-streamed speeches – although what that would look like isn't clear. DNC officials are remaining tight-lipped but expect to announce some plans soon, perhaps by the end of the month.
Republicans to straddle between Charlotte, Jacksonville
The RNC's party business will remain in Charlotte, the original host of the full convention, RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said, while the "celebration" will take place in Jacksonville. Republicans are limiting the presence in Charlotte to 336 delegates, six from each state and territories. All 2,511 delegates will be able to attend the Jacksonville festivities.
The schedule of the two-city arrangement isn't set, but Trump would deliver his speech on the final night, a Thursday, if the convention follows tradition.
The move shifts Trump from one battleground state where the president has a slight lead over Biden, North Carolina, to another in Florida, where polls have shown him trailing. Trump carried Florida in 2016 and desperately needs to win it again for his reelection.
More:Jacksonville chosen to host Trump's Republican National Convention acceptance speech
In an interview on Fox News, McDaniel on Friday noted that Jacksonville is also near Georgia, another state where polling shows a tightening race.
"But what we really get to highlight is that companies are opening up, that America’s opening up and these states where businesses are allowed to thrive economically are growing and adding jobs and helping with the transition to greatness as the president is showcasing time and time again," she said.
McDaniel couldn't say when asked whether attendees would have to sign releases that they won't sue the RNC, like they do for his upcoming rallies, if they contract COVID-19. "We haven’t even gotten there yet."
More:Tickets for Trump campaign rally include liability disclaimer about possible exposure to coronavirus
Several Republican governors, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, lobbied for the convention, but Democratic mayors of cities in the hunt – including Nashville, Orlando and Phoenix – raised cost concerns, safety objections or both. An exception was Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican and former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, who aggressively pushed for the event.
"Here in the River City, we do things big and bold, and we will be ready," Curry said in a video after the RNC announced the move.
Under Florida's "Phase 2" reopening rules that began June 4, auditoriums, as well as bars and pubs, were allowed to open to 50% capacity.
But Curry said he expects Trump to speak before a full arena and for the guidelines to be different by August. A spokeswoman for Curry said the mayor anticipates DeSantis to implement the guidelines for the White House's Phase 3 of reopening, which allows full attendance at indoor arenas.
Democrats say safety is top priority
Democrats said they are striving for a "middle ground" – something in between the full-fledged celebration that Trump covets and an online virtual format. Party officials don't foresee having satellite conventions across the country, one idea recently floated.
DNC officials hope to maintain flexibility to either scale-up if social distancing measures are relaxed or scale the convention back if needed for health concerns. The DNC's production team is exploring a range of options, including remote broadcasts of certain speakers – think Hillary Clinton's surprise appearance in the 2016 DNC convention the night before her acceptance speech.
DNC chairman Tom Perez confirmed this week that Democrats are still coming to Milwaukee, saying he looks forward "when we descend on Milwaukee to celebrate our party, to have a safe and effective convention where we will highlight Joe Biden and his historic choice as a running mate."
More:DNC chair Tom Perez reaffirms Democrats are coming to Milwaukee for 2020 national convention
But he did not say how many Democrats that would include: "We don't know the answer today because we don't know what the public health situation on the ground will be."
Many party insiders expect a hybrid event, where some but not all delegates will travel to Milwaukee and some but not all speakers will appear before a live audience in the city.
Perez said: "Unlike Donald Trump, we are actually going to listen to the public health experts as we come to Milwaukee because we believe it's really important to have a safe, exciting, inspiring convention in Milwaukee and I'm confident we can do that."
Biden last month said he doesn't know whether he will be coming to Milwaukee to accept the nomination.
More:Democrats ponder the political pros and cons of an unprecedented shift toward a more virtual convention
The DNC already delayed the convention, originally set for July, to provide more time to prepare during the pandemic.
Delegates of each state were recently polled by the DNC whether they would be willing to travel to Milwaukee for the convention. The DNC rules and bylaws committee approved a resolution in May to allow virtual voting among delegates, enabling them to still participate in party business if they choose to stay at home. The DNC is expected to soon formally adopt the changes.
Milwaukee recently entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan, which allows public events of no more than 250 people and 25% capacity. Indoor areas of restaurant and bars are also limited to 25% capacity.
To help steer the convention planning, the Biden campaign this month made two new hires: Addisu Demissie, a longtime Democratic strategist who managed New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign, and Lindsay Holst, who worked as Biden's digital director when he was vice president.
Katie Peters, a spokeswoman for the DNCC, said Democrats are "committed to protecting public health and we’re determined to find new ways to make our event as inclusive and engaging as possible."
Although still finalizing plans, she said Democrats "will be be ready to unite the nation around our shared values and launch our nominee on a path to victory."
The evolution of the political convention
Both the Trump and Biden campaigns will look to the conventions to boost their polling as they enter the final months of the race, although any bump is historically offset by the other party's convention.
Biden, especially, could face a major challenge for television viewership if the convention is scaled back.
Modern conventions have been glitzy, no-drama affairs tantamount to coronations. The four-day orchestrated events are usually held in giant sports arenas and feature up-and-coming political stars in a build-up culminating with the nominee’s prime-time acceptance speech on the final night.
Future presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton gave convention speeches that helped catapult them to the White House.
That was different from decades ago when the conventions were more akin to smoke-filled rooms. Party brokers decided who would be on the ticket, guided by influential special interests such as labor and industry.
At the time, the gatherings could be unpredictable and raucous, as the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago proved to be. Sometimes it took multiple rounds of voting among delegates to choose the nominee. The last convention that provided any real mystery was 1976 in Kansas City where incumbent President Gerald Ford defeated Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination.
That began to change with the 1980 conventions. By then, most of the drama played out in state primaries and caucuses in the winter and spring. The conventions were foregone conclusions, promotional events made for television.
Trump calls for new GOP platform after adopting 2016 version
These days, thousands of large donors, long-time activists and prominent politicians descend on the chosen city to celebrate and showcase the party’s strengths.
But they’re not all pomp and party. Delegates officially vote one state at a time in roll-call fashion on the presidential and vice presidential nominees. They also gather to vote on the party platform.
On that end, Trump's decision to move his nomination speech to Jacksonville created a dilemma for Republicans.
Under party rules, the executive committee of the RNC carried over the party's 2016 party platform that takes aim at the "current president" – Obama at the time, but Trump now – when it chose Wednesday not to formally adopt a platform for 2000.
Party leaders decided it didn't make sense to ask all delegates to pay to fly to Charlotte to vote on the platform, the New York Times reported, when they would also be going to Jacksonville for speeches of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump on Friday called for a new platform.
"The Republican Party has not yet voted on a Platform. No rush. I prefer a new and updated Platform, short form, if possible," the president tweeted.
The president didn't say whether that vote will take place in Charlotte or Jacksonville.
Contributing: Craig Gilbert and Bill Glauber, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Christopher Hong, the Florida Times-Union
Follow Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.