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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

April 3: Why Democrats Postponed the Convention But Didn’t Make it “Virtual”–Yet

Sometimes big political decisions are made that seem a little odd until you explore the internal logic. That’s how I assessed the big news this week about the 2020 Democratic National Convention at New York:

Here are several explanations for the decision to move the date instead of bagging the whole atavistic event in favor of a long-distance show for TV and social media.

1. Because they could

Yes, the postponement of the Olympic Games might make it seem strange to go ahead with a different (if vastly smaller and less complex) high-profile live event. But it also opened up new scheduling territory. The original July dates for the DNC were based on giving a wide berth to the Games. Now Democrats can snuggle right up to the August 24 start date for the Republican Convention without trying to draw eyeballs away from the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And if the pandemic (and the fear of big gatherings) somehow fades by then, they can go ahead and party like it’s 2019.

2. They don’t want to give the GOP an advantage

Even as Democrats talked about going virtual, Republicans were insisting none of their plans had changed: “No way I’m going to cancel the convention,” Trump has told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “We’re going to have the convention, it’s going to be incredible.”

Conventions have traditionally been worth a significant bounce for each party’s presidential candidates. They typically canceled each other out, but the possibility of Republicans having their big four-day live TV show after Democrats had bagged or curtailed their own did not seem advisable to those planning the Milwaukee event. If, of course, Republicans do look at the epidemiological evidence and radically modify their plans for Charlotte, Democrats will do the same in a Milwaukee Minute.

3. A lot of local money depends on a live convention

National political conventions are massive undertakings by the host city, which in turn expect massive benefits from the many thousands (an estimated 50,000, initially) of people who attend the event and eat and drink and pay premium rates for lodging and transportation. Now that Milwaukee, like every other American city, is facing a deep and immediate recession, a huge live convention in August seems perfectly timed in terms of a much-hoped-for rebound, as local leaders tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the decision ‘absolutely the right move’ by the organizers and the Democratic National Committee.

“’It underscores the commitment that they have made to Milwaukee,’ he said. ‘It underscores the commitment they have made to Wisconsin and it is my hope that by having it in August it will be a much needed shot in the arm for our restaurants, hotels and other businesses.’”

Sharply cutting back on the in-person aspects of the convention before it’s absolutely necessary would be a bummer for the host city, and that in turn could cast a pall over the residual events.

4. Nobody wants to offend Wisconsin

And speaking of palls cast, Democrats haven’t for a moment forgotten why they picked Milwaukee for their convention in the first place: the belief that Wisconsin will be one of the key states — and perhaps the key state — that will determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Scrubbing the party’s big party there would likely be a buzzkill for Wisconsin Democrats and could even alienate swing voters:

“Part of the narrative that comes out of a convention also involves the host city and state. A potential casualty if there is a virtual convention would be the visibility Milwaukee and Wisconsin stand to gain from the convention and the political message Democrats want to send by choosing Wisconsin — that the party is laser-focused on a part of the country it neglected in the last presidential race.”

Being literally afraid to set foot in Milwaukee would not be a good look for Democrats, even if it’s for public-health reasons everyone can understand.

5. It’s Joe’s party now

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the decision to postpone the convention (without changing its nature — so far at least) came almost immediately after Joe Biden began urging that course of action. Perhaps his DNC friends were whispering to him to move in that direction, but in any event, as the presumptive presidential nominee, Uncle Joe is on the brink of assuming complete command of convention planning. It’s essentially a turnkey operation ready to bow before the imperial will of the candidate whose name will be uttered a thousand times once the opening gavel drops.

Delaying the convention also gives Biden’s people more time to impose control over the proceedings, which is handy since the coronavirus has also greatly postponed the moment when he officially clinches the nomination.

6. The convention can always “go virtual” later

Postponing the convention may simply mean kicking the can down the road a month in making the fateful decision to sadden nostalgic Democrats and the population of Milwaukee by “going virtual” with significant elements of the convention — or just scaling everything back. I’d be shocked if contingency planning for a very different kind of convention isn’t quietly under way (probably among Republicans as well), even as the DNC trumpets sound the charge toward an event just like the ones that made Joe Biden the vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and 2012. So don’t be surprised, if it turns out to be just too risky to kick it old school in Milwaukee on August 17, that the Democratic Party will have a fully developed plan B before the first balloon order is canceled.

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