It may not have been as large as he had hoped, but President Donald Trump got his wish to deliver his acceptance speech before a live crowd to close the 2020 Republican National Convention.
Both political parties had to grapple with the reality that the coronavirus pandemic would not allow the staging of a traditional convention, with thousands of people crowded into sports arenas.
Democrats, instead, held a “virtual convention,” using a combination of messages from party leaders recorded from their homes, slickly produced promotional videos and user-generated content woven around a handful of live events to produce what could be described as a social media feed of political content.
Republicans went more traditional, using a classic Roman-columned auditorium not far from the White House for the backdrop of many of their recorded speeches.
But the similarities ended with the staging of live speeches by key speakers. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden; his wife, Jill Biden; vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and former president Barack Obama delivered their speeches live, but with no audience, save for some reporters.
But coronavirus distancing measures were less rigorously applied during key Republican speeches.
First lady Melania Trump spoke to an audience of about 70 in the White House Rose Garden. Vice President Mike Pence had about 100 people attend his speech at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. And about 1,500 supporters were seated side by side on the White House South Lawn for Trump’s nomination acceptance speech Thursday night.
Few masks were visible at any of the events, and most of the attendees were not tested for coronavirus before entering White House grounds.
Matthew Continetti, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, noted that both parties sent subtle signals about their way forward with the pandemic.
“You can look at the ways in which the two nominees handled their panel discussions. Joe Biden, of course, talked to his guests via Zoom remotely. And whenever Biden was in proximity with other people, he always was sure to model the use of a mask,” Continetti said.
“Donald Trump, on the other hand, conducted his panels in person, in the White House, and there were no masks involved,” he added. “I think that speaks to larger differences between the two parties, not only on how to approach the coronavirus, but also the future of America in general,” Continetti said.
Among the key pieces of party business conducted at a convention is the adoption of a platform, which is a statement of the party’s guiding principles and policy positions. Democrats adopted their platform on the second day of their convention and revealed that more than 1,000 delegates out of the total of 3,979 voted no on the platform.
Continetti said the lack of arena-filled audiences helped quiet intra-party divisions. “You didn't have any boos or heckles of when an elected official voiced a more moderate position during DNC … and you also didn't have those chants of ‘lock her up,’ which kind of were interspersed among all the speeches at the RNC four years ago,” Continetti noted.
Republicans simply renewed their platform from 2016 and added a resolution to “enthusiastically support” Trump’s agenda.
Past and future
There was also a conspicuous absence of former party leaders at the Republican convention. Nearly all of Joe Biden’s primary opponents spoke at the Democratic convention along with former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Former president George W. Bush did not speak at the Republican convention for the second consecutive time. And of Trump’s 11 Republican primary opponents in 2016, just Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Housing Secretary Ben Carson delivered convention remarks.
“The absence of the old guard of the Republican Party is definitely meaningful,” said Vanessa Beasley, communications professor at Vanderbilt University. “You want to show the continuity of the party itself, you want to show the party’s behind you, and the absence of key figures signals ... that's not necessarily the case,” she noted.
While many of the featured speakers at the Republican convention were members of the president’s immediate family and their significant others, Continetti says it was that way in 2016 and it plays to Trump’s branding as a celebrity.
“So much of his support is tied to him personally, that I think if the goal of the convention is to enthuse his voter base, maybe remind them of why they voted for Donald Trump four years ago, a family member is just as likely to do that as a Republican elected official, and perhaps even more likely, since one thing we know about the Trump base is that they are extremely suspicious of politics as usual,” Continetti said.
Both candidates claim they are optimistic while painting a dark picture of the American future if the opposing candidate wins.
“I think what's interesting about this moment is that that optimism as a claim is being manifest quite differently,” notes Beasley, an expert on political communication and presidential rhetoric. “In the Democratic National Convention, it was almost a more somber and intimate tone, some sense of even some mourning, especially when they showed pictures of people whose lives have been lost to COVID-19.”
“And the optimism in the Republican case was manifest in terms of a higher volume, a tone of what will happen if the future is left in the hands of the Democrats,” Beasley said.
Without a live audience to react and applaud, speeches were shorter at both conventions. But fewer people watched either convention on television than did four years ago.
Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.