The ‘unconventional convention’: What worked and what didn’t

Most experts give the Democrats good grades on their biggest event, especially Jill Biden.

The 2020 Democratic National Convention wrapped on Thursday night with presidential nominee Joe Biden delivering a speech even some conversative pundits thought was “a home run.

But there was no auditorium packed to the rafters with cheering supporters. Nor did balloons fall from the ceiling in celebration, although there were fireworks outside and flashing car emergency lights, truly making it “the unconventional convention.” 

Political PR pros on both sides of the aisle say the Democrats did an admirable job reimagining most, although not all, aspects of a convention for the audience at home as a result of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When the convention was at its best, it was because organizers had clearly “let go of preconceived notions” of the in-person format, says Emily Robinson, senior account strategist at BerlinRosen. 

She cites the following as highlights: a 10-minute video segment of those impacted by gun violence; Sara Gideon, who’s running to represent Maine in the Senate, introducing artist Maggie Rogers from the seashore; and former first lady Michelle Obama’s 18-minute speech teed up like a fireside chat.

“All of those elements would have been executed very differently had it been on the convention floor. When organizers seemed to have really embraced the new format, that is when you felt ‘This really sings,’” Robinson says. “When it didn’t, it was because they were trying to fit a square peg into the round hole of a traditional convention.”  

While Kamala Harris was widely applauded for her speech, experts question the decision to put the vice presidential candidate on a stage in a mostly empty room before a podium with a projection of a small Zoom audience. 

“[It] was meant to reinforce the gravity of the situation, but having her leave to digital applause and an empty auditorium felt really awkward,” says Robinson, who adds that the organizers of next week’s Republican National Convention were surely taking note. 

“I would not expect to see people Skype in from home to cheer,” she says.  

Biden used that same stage on Thursday night, but having cameras follow him outside, where a parking lot full of cars was waiting and people in masks cheered as fireworks went off overhead, was far more effective. 

“The outdoor events, especially the live footage of drive-in viewing parties cheering Biden accepting the nomination, were really smartly done. Having Joe Biden and Kamala Harris get to wave to live people in front of a flag backdrop closed it on a note that felt real, not virtual,” says Robinson.

Dan Meyers, senior director and head of advocacy for APCO’s public affairs practice, notes the virtual format proves how difficult it is to manufacture the energy and authenticity a crowd can bring to the political show. 

“Conventions in modern history are designed to build momentum and show energy around the ticket. This week has shown that it is incredibly difficult to do in a virtual environment,” says the former Republican political operative and White House staffer during President Geroge W. Bush’s administration. “The lack of the ability to read an audience, build off of their mass applause and create buzz truly hampers enthusiasm.” 

It also didn’t help that the big speakers of each night were mostly introduced by single-night moderators such as actresses Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, from within a studio, adds Meyers.

“It seems a bit disjointed,” he explains, adding that they inevitably “trip over each other with live-feed delays versus a pre-recorded message.” 

What the DNC did very well, and generated positive social and earned media buzz, was in finding new life in traditionally staid parts of the convention procedure. That included the traditional roll call of states, during which Rhode Island, for instance, highlighted its “state appetizer” of calamari, while Ohio featured a labor worker and a newly revived electric pickup truck manufacturing facility in Lordstown. 

“The reinvention of the roll call was impressive and showed each state’s personality and creativity,” says Meyers. “Most viewers typically tune out or drift from watching for this often mundane, procedural task. The involvement of delegates that were seemingly real voters versus only the typical super-delegates or establishment politicians announcing their state’s results was a nice touch.”

He also gives high marks to some of the locations chosen for key figures to deliver their remarks, like would-be first lady Jill Biden, who spoke from the classroom where she taught English at Delaware's Brandywine High School in the 1990s. 

“The backdrop allowed her to be authentic, emotional and personal in a time when millions of Americans are asking themselves questions about school safety,” says Meyers. 

Not binding speakers to a stage allowed them to speak in a more personal, emotionally resonant way, adds Liza Acevedo, a Democratic strategist and director in Washington, DC, for SKDKnickerbocker.

“What I really loved, and I don’t know if it could have played as well in a convention setting, was hearing from Jill [Biden] talk about she and her husband’s love story and providing an inside look into their relationship,” says Acevedo. “That could be the biggest outcome of all this, is whether hearing those personal stories will sway voters.” 

Eric Sedler, managing partner at Kivvit, says the unconventional setting also empowered speakers from former President Barack Obama to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was shot in the head in 2011, to hit a more serious note and hammer home the message that voting in this election is, for some, really a matter of life and death.

“The overall format provides a unique feeling of purpose and seriousness without the crowd shots of the party atmosphere on the floor with the waving signs and other paraphernalia,” he says. “The speeches are also more substantive and able to break through since they are designed for the home viewer and not the live crowd.” 

But will a virtual convention actually sway voters or result in a significant bump for either candidate? 

The 2020 Democratic National Convention reportedly attracted between 40% and 50% fewer TV viewers per night than the 2016 convention, though those numbers don’t account for streaming. A shift from a live to virtual convention has also resulted in 16 fewer hours of content than the typical event. 

KayAnn Schoeneman, SVP and director of corporate affairs and public affairs at Curley Company, agrees that “the audience tuning in real-time are likely already supporters and that fewer undecided voters are watching the conventions than in the past.” 

However, she notes that “the quality of the content” produced for the Democratic National Convention, especially some of the pre-recorded segments, was high and was shared online and via social media. 

“So I think there will be a bounce in support, while maintaining engagement with Democratic supporters, who they need to show up on Election Day,” says Schoeneman. 

She adds that some elements born out of the virtual convention will stick around for major election events to come.

“It has allowed for diversity of speaker participation and location that hopefully stays post-COVID,” says Schoeneman. “The political convention needed to be shaken up.”

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