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Virtual Conventions: Health Crisis Forces Both Parties, Particularly The Democrats, to Envision the Possibility

Commentary By Louis Jacobson


-- Officially, both parties’ conventions are still on. But the spread of coronavirus has raised the distinct possibility that one or both parties will have to find an alternative to an in-person convention.

-- Experts say that taking care of a convention’s business online is feasible, but it will require advance planning.

-- The Democrats have more to worry about from a canceled in-person convention, both because their convention is scheduled for several weeks earlier than the Republican confab and because Democrats need to get their message out more urgently, given that the GOP currently holds the White House.

Virtual conventions: suddenly a possibility

Will there be Democratic and Republican conventions this summer? The coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing needed to combat it, are putting these quadrennial festivities in doubt -- an unprecedented situation that is leaving party officials, politicians, and the media in a quandary, with a fast-ticking clock.

Officially, both parties’ conventions remain on. The Democratic National Convention had been scheduled for July 13 to July 16 in Milwaukee. The Republican convention is later -- Aug. 24 to Aug. 27 in Charlotte -- but both confabs face a seemingly endless list of uncertainties.

“While we continue to closely monitor this fluid situation, the Democratic National Convention Committee will remain focused on planning a safe and successful convention in Milwaukee four months from now,” Joe Solmonese, CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, told Sabato’s Crystal Ball in a statement. “As we prepare these plans, we will remain in constant communication with the local, state, and federal officials responsible for protecting public health and security -- and will continue to follow their guidance as we move forward.”

Meanwhile, Blair Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Convention, told the Wall Street Journal, “We recognize and will take additional steps to ensure the safety and health of all attendees in light of the spread of COVID-19 and will continue to communicate with federal, state and local health experts in our planning. We have fantastic partners in Charlotte and beyond helping us plan a successful convention.”

For his part, President Donald Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “No way I’m going to cancel the convention. We’re going to have the convention, it’s going to be incredible.”

Political observers, however, aren’t so sure.

The Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, who headed the 2008 and 2016 Democratic conventions, told Sabato’s Crystal Ball that canceling the in-person convention is “a rising possibility, especially now that the Olympics are postponed for a year. It will be difficult to justify gathering 50,000 people in one place when the very next week it would have been the Olympics and they’ve been canceled.”

If some positive event occurs, such as a very early vaccine or drastically improved testing, “then maybe an in-person convention can be pulled off successfully,” said Colorado State University political scientist Kyle Saunders. However, he added, “I have to think a convention is unlikely if we are assessing things today.”

Among the countless factors to consider are whether hotels near the convention site will be open and staffed. That’s unclear for now.

Daughtry estimated that the final date to move ahead or cancel the Democratic convention is probably around June 1.

That’s about three weeks before the final delegates are due to be elected by voters, due to coronavirus-driven primary election delays. (See the updated primary calendar here.) There also needs to be time for local, congressional district, and state committees to choose some of the individuals to fill the delegate slots secured by each candidate.

In this regard, the Democrats have a complication the Republicans don’t -- the ongoing primary contest between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Due to the rash of delayed primaries, Biden may not officially reach the nomination threshold of 1,991 delegates until June, not long before the convention is supposed to be held. State and local delays in naming the people to fill the delegate slots could add extra time to the process.

If Sanders were to exit the race early and concede the nomination to Biden, that would make it easier to plan a remote convention, since it would rule out a second ballot that includes voting by “superdelegates,” experts say. Superdelegates are lawmakers and other senior Democrats who, under the current rules, don’t vote unless no candidate wins a simple majority of delegates in the first round.

If Sanders remains in the race until the convention, that could add wrinkles to the planning for a remote convention.

How can you build a remote convention?

A remote convention could be structured around a series of events on broadcast and social media, Saunders said.

“You could do speeches and floor votes, with watch parties at local and state party headquarters,” Saunders said. “That could be a unifying, positive event that builds party rapport and purpose -- if the parties could find a way to pull it off.”

The official business conducted at the convention -- the certification of the delegates, the passage of convention rules, and the nomination of the presidential and vice presidential candidates -- can probably be redesigned to be handled online, with appropriate planning, experts said.

That said, “I’ll preface everything I say with, ‘I don’t know,’” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist who specializes in delegate selection rules and presidential elections. “There’s no clear language that covers anything like this. This is not something we deal with every four years.”

Daughtry said the biggest obstacle is that the rules currently do not allow for proxy voting; for now, all votes must be cast in person.

To fix that, Putnam said, the DNC could meet remotely and change the rules to allow remote voting for conventions. This would require a simple majority vote of the DNC membership. Alternately, or in conjunction, the DNC could vote on a permanent bylaw, which would need a two-thirds vote to pass.

“I don’t think it’s a tremendous obstacle to change the rules -- you just have to be up-front and transparent about it,” Putnam said.

Here are the key pieces of official business that need to be conducted at a Democratic convention. They would all need to be done remotely if the in-person convention is canceled:

-- Certification of the delegates: This is the process the party uses to confirm which individual occupies which delegate slot. Sometimes the choice of a delegate is contested due to procedural complaints; certification is the process for resolving these disputes.

-- Approving the rules of the convention: These are the rules that govern how the convention is run -- for instance, how long the nominating and seconding speeches will go. Typically, the rules are hashed out by the DNC the weekend before the convention starts, with delegates voting on the rules package on the first day of the convention.

-- Electing the officers of the convention: The convention begins with temporary officials, including the chair, which is filled temporarily by the DNC chair. The delegates need to vote to approve the formal officers for the duration of the convention; this typically occurs on the first evening of the convention. The permanent convention officials are empowered to conduct subsequent business at the convention.

-- Nomination of the presidential and vice presidential candidates: These nominations are the high point of any convention, when the candidates experience their formal coming-out party on the national stage. The voting is traditionally done through a roll call of state delegations that is by turns dramatic and hokey.

All of these would have to be done remotely if there is no in-person convention.

In theory, a convention could be made to be delegates-only, without families, donors, and other hangers-on (members of the media, who make up a significant chunk of the out-of-town visitors to any convention city, could also in theory be relegated along with everyone else to a livestream). But even a gathering that small would not significantly reduce health concerns.

“Would even the 5,000 delegates and staff want to get on a plane and stay in a hotel and eat at restaurants and gather in the arena?” Daughtry said. “I have older parents. I would think five times before doing that. I’m not sure what I’d bring home.”

The Republicans have the luxury of several additional weeks to plan, and the GOP has a smaller universe of delegates to consider. Still, the GOP will have to grapple with many of the same questions as the Democrats will, sooner or later.

What would be the consequences of a 2020 without conventions?

A convention provides the party holding it with several benefits.

It allows a chance to unify the party after a divisive primary season. It allows a chance for officials to woo donors who will be providing financial support down the stretch. And it provides an opportunity for party members to network and be trained for the fall campaign.

But the biggest impact is probably in the realm of publicity. For both parties -- and especially for the party out of power, as the Democrats are this year -- the convention offers four days of saturation coverage of the nominee and the party’s platform.

The biggest challenge for a party losing its chance to mount a convention “is the loss of the nation’s attention for four days, to allow the nominee to lay out the party’s agenda and platform,” Daughtry said.

Historically, this concentrated dose of media attention has prompted a “convention bounce” in the polls.

Broadly speaking, both parties tend to get a bounce in the first set of polls after their convention. On average, these bounces tend to be short-lived, and they largely cancel each other out by the time the fall campaign starts.

However, modest cycle-to-cycle differences in impact can make a difference. As a general rule, whoever is ahead after the second convention tends to win in November, said Christopher Wlezien, a University of Texas-Austin political scientist and co-author of the book, The Timeline of Presidential Elections.

With the possibility of only one party convention being held in 2020 -- or none -- “it’s all going to be different this year,” Wlezien said in an interview. “The question is how different. The parties are not going to punt entirely -- they will substitute something fractional. So you might get some of the effects you’d normally get, but I’d assume they’d be less.”

Logic would suggest that the out-party -- this year, the Democrats -- has the most to lose from the absence of a convention. That could be especially true if Trump continues to hold daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, sucking up most of the media oxygen.

But Biden, having served as vice president for eight years, is better known than many past out-of-power-party nominees, meaning the Democrats’ downside risk could be more modest. And Republicans could suffer from the lack of a convention, too. The GOP has “a sitting president who prides himself on creating an award-winning show,” Daughtry said. The inability to leverage that expertise could be a disappointment for the party.

Potentially, the elimination of traditional conventions could produce a “more dynamic” fall campaign, in which new methods of campaigning and a different landscape of events produces unexpected ebbs and flows of public opinion, Wlezien said. How much the media covers a non-convention convention will make a difference, he added.

On the other hand, public opinion in the Trump era has been highly stable. This leads some observers to suggest that the presence or the absence of conventions will ultimately be a blip by Election Day.

“I don’t think it would have any effect on the outcome of the election,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “This is going to be a referendum on Trump, and nothing that happens at a party convention is going to change how Americans view him.”

Could 2020 be the end of conventions as we know them?

For decades, political elites have wondered whether four-day political convocations -- which for decades have been more pomp than circumstance -- would be able to survive in a time of narrowed attention spans and an ever-more fractured media landscape.

Now, with the possibility that conventions could go online in 2020, might the entire idea of conventions be changed forever?

It’s possible, said Saunders of Colorado State. If a retooled online convention “worked and was successful, it could well kill off the traditional conventions forever. They would still happen, but as ‘internet events,’” he said.

Daughtry agreed that it’s possible.

“I love the pageantry, but after this, there will be some questions,” she said. “What you need to get done you can do in three hours. The rest is a show. So the question people will ask is, why are we doing this for four days? Can we do it in one day? Is the time and expense worth it?”

Still, don’t count conventions out entirely, observers say.

While there will be a temptation to kill off the conventions, the chance to earn loads of free media will be hard for the parties to pass up. “The question is whether the media wants to cover these events in the future,” Putnam said. In all likelihood, he said, it’s like the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, the media will come.”

Wlezien said he expects conventions to follow the course of workplaces after the coronavirus pandemic eases.

“When people get used to working using (the teleconferencing software) Zoom, will we not have offices any more?” he said. “I think the answer is that we’ll still have offices. But we might have a few more days off working at home. For conventions, political elites seem to want them.”

Jo Ann Davidson, a Columbus, Ohio-based Republican official and former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives who was a key planner of the 2008 and 2016 Republican conventions, said that because political people love conventions, they will be hard to give up. “I think it would be an extreme change,” Davidson said.

Then again, she added, thanks to coronavirus, “people will be dealing with lots of extremes they haven’t ever gone through before.”

Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and was senior author of the 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions of the Almanac of American Politics and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.

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This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author or syndicate.

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