Jennifer Lawless is an author and professor of politics at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics.
Crazy hats, cheering delegates, balloon drops, drama on the floor—all gone in 2020. These mainstays of political conventions went the way of the rotary dial phone. But as we mourn the loss of the festivities we’ve become accustomed to every four years, let’s also celebrate some of the new innovations that allowed the parties to move forward amid a pandemic.
The way I see it, three features of the virtual conventions worked beautifully—so well, in fact, that it would behoove the parties to incorporate these elements into future meetings.
First, the roll calls. They were quick, fun and interesting. Viewers had an opportunity to see voters across the country pledge their support in a way that distinguished among the states and, in some cases, called attention to their quirkiness. Even if the delegates are present on the convention floor, a pre-taped roll call would be a welcome replacement to how the parties typically do business.
Second, the shorter speeches. The only way to get prominent politicians to stop speaking is to cut them off. And that’s much easier to do with a virtual format. I can’t remember a set of speeches—on either side of the aisle—that were as focused and succinct as those this time around. It’ll be a challenge to preserve this feature for an in-person event, but there’s no question that reining in verbosity pays dividends.
Third, the run of show. There were glitches to be sure, but both conventions proceeded like well-oiled machines. And it’s a lot easier to capture an audience when there’s no downtime. With no stage entries, stage exists, or minutes devoted to clapping and cheering, the parties preserved time to show short videos with compelling footage from everyday Americans—people for whom a live, prime-time speaking spot would be a very risky endeavor.
This isn’t to say, of course, that there weren’t things that just didn’t work. The “focus groups” with real voters—on Zoom for the Democrats and in the White House for the Republicans—were stilted and staged. The awkward moments at the end of the Democrats’ live speeches, including waving at TV monitors, were cringe-worthy. The Republicans’ failure to wear masks and social distance during their live interactions raised significant public health concerns.