No balloon drops. No platform brawls. No cheering partisans.
So what’s a political convention for, precisely, when it falls in the midst of a pandemic?
For Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democratic National Convention that starts Monday is still the biggest opportunity they will have before Election Day to introduce themselves, bash the other side, and outline a governing agenda. The debates in the fall, three presidential and one vice presidential, may have even more impact but will be under the control of others and on stages shared with their opponents.
This year’s convention looms especially large because the Democratic primary season was cut short by the onset of COVID-19. Biden became the presumptive nominee without the final pitched battles and triumphant victory celebrations that typically define a candidate, hone a campaign operation and provide momentum into the general election.
Are you registered to vote?Check your status. Request an early ballot.
“The drama of the primary season just fizzled out,” said William Howell, a University of Chicago political scientist and co-author of “Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy,” published this month. Now the convention will ignite the campaign’s final and most intense phase. “It marks the transition to the general election.”
Biden’s nomination won’t be challenged this week, but at an unprecedented digital convention, there are still things the Democratic presidential candidate needs to do. Here are three of them.
Job one: Don’t mess up a good thing.
In a campaign that now stands as a referendum on President Trump, Biden has held a steady lead in national polls, now at 7.7 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics.com average. He has an edge of between six and seven points in statewide polls in the three battlegrounds that were key in putting Trump in the White House four years ago – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Biden even leads Trump by an average of five percentage points in surveys in Florida, a crucial state in any realistic map for a Republican victory.
“The list of things he needs to do is a little bit of a loaded word, since he’s significantly ahead in the polls,” said Neera Tanden of the liberal Center for American Progress, a top adviser in Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016.
The first thing Biden wants to do, then, is nothing – that is, nothing that disrupts the campaign’s current trajectory. He does that by keeping a focus on Trump in general and his handling of the pandemic in particular.
“Right now the race is Trump vs. COVID,” said Robert Shrum, a veteran of several Democratic presidential campaigns, “and Trump’s losing badly.”
‘There is no playbook’:How Trump and Biden are trying to run virtual campaigns during coronavirus
Job two: Get people excited about the ticket.
Trump has fewer voters but they are more enthusiastic about their candidate, the president’s campaign team notes. They argue that makes his voters more likely to cast a ballot even in a contest in which the coronavirus makes voting more complicated, even perilous.
A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday asked voters an open-ended question about why they supported their candidate. Among Biden voters, a 56% majority replied, “He is not Trump.” That was three times the 19% percent for the second-ranking response, “leadership/performance.”
Among Trump voters, in contrast, just one in five said they were supporting the president because “he is not Biden.” More than seven in 10 gave positive responses about the president – his “leadership/performance,” “issue/policy positions,” “for American people and values,” “he tells it like it is.”
It’s possible for Biden to be elected by being “not Trump,” but coming into office without some consensus about what Americans were voting for could make it more difficult for him to do things once there. In recent months, he has delivered major addresses on issues including foreign policy, the economy and climate change, although those messages have struggled to break through a news cycle dominated by Trump and the pandemic.
The convention is a chance for Biden to build understanding of and support for the agenda he wants to follow as president. “This is a really critical moment for them to positively define themselves, and really define how the Biden-Harris administration will operate,” Tanden said. “Why it will make your life better.”
Job three: Span a yawning political spectrum
A convention that features speakers ranging from former Ohio governor John Kasich (a Republican) and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (a Democratic socialist) covers a considerable ideological span.
Biden has reached out to white, working-class voters drawn to Trump in places like his home state of Pennsylvania, but he also won the nomination in large part thanks to African American voters in South Carolina and elsewhere. And the Democratic presidential contender who finished second, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, tapped rising progressive forces that have moved the party to the left just in the past four years.
11 names, 120 hours of interviews:Inside the grueling VP search that led Joe Biden to Kamala Harris
In the days since Biden chose California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, she already has been deployed to generate enthusiasm – and presumably turnout – among Black voters. She may also help Democrats appeal to younger voters, a group that was cool to Biden during the primaries. The Biden team brags that the campaign raised a record $48 million in the 48 hours after Harris’ name was announced, a sign of new energy.
Divisions among Democrats like those seen in 2016 are the biggest landmine ahead, Shrum said. Then, disenchanted Sanders’ supporters booed some speakers and the party chairman was abruptly ousted. The unconventional nature of this convention may help project unity, he said: “Because it’s a virtual convention, you can’t find five dissident delegates who want to complain.”