The virtual Democratic convention, an unfolding political experiment

The roll call, mostly prerecorded, freed from the tumult of a convention floor, was a scenic, substantive trip across the U.S.

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Democrats Hold Unprecedented Virtual Convention From Milwaukee

In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the virtual convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The convention, which was once expected to draw 50,000 people to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is now taking place virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Handout/DNCC via Getty Images

Will the virtual political conventions forced on us because of the COVID-19 pandemic make any substantial difference for Joe Biden or Donald Trump?

Maybe not, though I will miss being in the room when the balloons drop.

When Bill Clinton spoke Tuesday night at the virtual Democratic National Convention from the home he shares with Hillary in Chappaqua, New York, he was subdued. In years past, Bill Clinton delivered stem winders to thunderous applause in packed convention arenas.

I was distracted a bit as I tried to make out what seemed like family pictures on a table by his couch.

And if you were looking forward to some fire from New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she was her most sedate version, dressed up and speaking in front of a very establishment flag-draped background in Washington.

The roll call, mostly prerecorded, freed from the tumult of a convention floor, was a scenic, substantive trip across the U.S. No going back on this one, this is a change that should stick.

Hours before he spoke at the virtual convention Tuesday, former Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about virtual campaigning.

The virtual convention is the most visible manifestation of Biden’s virtual campaign, invented in mid-March in the wake of the pandemic. Biden’s bid is all virtual — no door knocks, no nothing in person, no taking any health risks.

“I think no one should underestimate the power of virtual communication,” said Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

“…I think that it may even eliminate some of the chaff and allow people to focus on the message and get things out with a clarity that you might not otherwise get” with in-person retail politics, he said.

For the moment, this unprecedented political road we are on — the Republicans hold their virtual convention next week — is, Kerry said, “an experiment. We don’t know the answer to that yet. We’ll see what happens.”

Most people never get into a convention hall and consume conventions via television in one sitting or in bits, from Twitch to Twitter. Here’s what we know so far:

On Monday, the first convention night, there were 19.7 million viewers across 10 networks, down from 25.9 million people across seven networks in 2016, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The social media numbers suggest there will be much more to the convention viewership story. CNN said its “multiplatform unique visitors” were up by 19% vs. the first day of the 2016 Democratic Convention.

Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said 10.2 million watched via digital streams on convention night one, up from 2016 with the TV and online audience totaling 28.9 million.

I asked veteran convention producer Jim Margolis — a senior adviser to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton White House bids as well as Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign — whether a virtual convention could turn out better than in-person.

Margolis said the Democratic virtual convention lends itself to “message clarity.”

He said, “A challenge that the producers faced was creating energy. Speakers often feed off the crowd, and unquestionably there is something pretty powerful when someone like Barack Obama walks on to the stage in front of 20,000 people, and that can’t be duplicated in a virtual setting.

“On the other hand, everyone was equal last night, whether you were a senator or the daughter of someone who died because of COVID. You were there, sitting at home, confronting the same challenges as everyone else.

“And the voices of average Americans were lifted up as prime-time players in the evening. So that real person connection was more powerful last night, perhaps, than when you bring them into a large arena.”

Some things don’t change, said Margolis. “When Michelle Obama speaks, she does it with power and grace. And that came through just as clearly last night, whether you were watching on a computer screen or a 50-inch television, as it did when you were sitting on the convention floor. And so, you know, content matters.”

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