August 21, 2020
An Unprecedented Democratic National Convention Defies Expectations
On the heels of the first virtual Democratic National Convention, three of our Democratic strategists break down the virtual programming that culminated with Joe Biden accepting the party’s nomination for President. Emily Katz, Zack Marshall, and Ann Adler share their thoughts on the major themes and spotlight takeaway moments from the 2020 DNC and what it could mean for the next two and a half months.
The Republican National Convention begins airing at 9 p.m. ET on Monday. Next Friday our GOP experts will provide their commentary on the week’s events.
A Convention Made for TV
Traditionally, national party conventions have been selective, exclusive gatherings. Elected delegates and party leaders donning access-limiting passes typically have convened in a single location to conduct party business. Evenings have consisted of litanies of speeches, in a loud and rowdy rally-style gathering attended by silly-hat-wearing, sign-waving party loyalists. That all changed this week with the 2020 Democratic National Convention, an event that virtually reached across the nation drawing participation from far-flung communities and family living rooms. It was a convention dedicated to inclusivity.
What we witnessed this week was a remarkable display of force by creative minds, making the best of a difficult situation. Take, for example, a biographical background video on Jill and Joe Biden that was skillfully directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, co-directors of the documentary RBG. Given some of the production value, many may never want to go back to the old way of conventions. Even the roll call votes were enthralling as viewers were transported across the nation with each state and territory finding a unique way to send a message – making viewers hungry for not only change, but for calamari, too. The Democrats made a point of showcasing diversity by demonstrating that different voices can talk about broad ranges of issues. Perhaps most surprising was the number of Republicans who spoke on how their party, now unrecognizable, had left them behind.
We the People
The narrative flowed – from night one’s focus on the challenges of addressing coronavirus and the failure of the current Administration to do so. The evening was capped off by Michelle Obama’s inspirational speech. She painted a positive picture of how the Obamas left the White House with the nation on an upward trajectory, downplaying the anger and fear that led many to vote for Trump, and blaming the 2016 election squarely on low voter turnout. However, Democrats are constantly stuck in this conundrum; they know that there are reasons Americans distrust Washington, but they must try to inspire to rebuild confidence in public programs that their policies rely upon. In the end Michelle may well have come through with the most effective call for voter engagement of the week, and she continued to insist on going high when the politics of the day seem to go so low.
Night two shifted from COVID-19 to foreign policy, health care, and getting to know Joe. As one high-ranking campaign aide noted in a behind-the-scenes conversation during the week, the goal of the convention was to portray the former Vice President as “uniquely qualified for this moment,” drawing a strong contrast to Donald Trump in every way. The programming highlighted working-class Americans Biden has met throughout his career, like the New York Times security guard who met Biden while operating an elevator or Amtrak employees he befriended during his daily commute to and from Washington and Delaware to be home with his children each night. Night two delivered on its goal of defining Biden as a regular Joe with empathy for Americans of all walks.
A More Perfect Union
Night three focused on gun safety, climate change, immigration reform, and women’s leadership, as it built to Senator Harris’ acceptance speech, with her becoming the first Black woman nominated for Vice President. Sen. Harris’ speech had a warm and familial tone – a contrast to her image as a tough prosecutor, taking on Joe Biden on the debate stage or Justice Kavanaugh in the hearing room.
The speech that preceded the newly minted Vice-Presidential nominee was the night’s stunner. Five years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine “No Drama Obama” so directly and stingingly attacking a sitting president. To gauge how remarkable former President Obama’s words were, we re-read Bill Clinton’s 2004 Convention speech while George W. Bush was the incumbent. Clinton never criticized the President without grouping him with Congressional Republicans, and this was the most damning comment about post 9/11: “The president had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror. Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies…”
Contrast that with Obama’s words on Wednesday regarding Trump: “I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
Night four began with an emphasis on faith and attention to voting rights, including a nod to the late John Lewis. Emcee Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’s comedic shots at President Trump were likely more hit than miss with the Democratic base, though there were a few cringeworthy moments. Much of the evening was devoted to filling in the picture of Joe Biden, with his extended family adding depth and color. The culmination of the evening, Biden’s acceptance speech, featured a confident candidate focused on his policy goals, and sprinkled with criticism of the failures of the current Administration and admonishing President Trump’s tactics of cynicism. If demonstrating competence, ageless energy, relatability, love of country, and optimism for the future were the ultimate goals, Biden’s speech hit the mark, square on.
The Next 74 Days
After a remarkable week of a programming triumph given the circumstances, what have we learned? The Democratic Party is squarely focused on policy topics like COVID-19, racial inequalities, foreign policy and America’s global reputation, immigration, and climate change. Democrats see value in embracing diversity in a rare moment of party unity, built out of the effort to defeat Donald Trump, a unity that will be difficult to maintain past election day. Our behind-the-scenes conversations with Party leaders this week also gave us this insight – the campaign is feeling confident about Biden’s double-digit lead, but they aren’t kidding themselves. They recognize that those numbers will likely narrow before November and have no intention of making the same mistakes twice in four years.