WASHINGTON - The U.S. Democratic Party, fearful of the coronavirus pandemic, is moving closer to holding a virtual convention in August to nominate former Vice President Joe Biden as its presidential candidate in the November national election rather than stage a traditional jammed-to-the-rafters event.
The Democratic National Committee’s rules and bylaws committee agreed on Tuesday to give convention organizers broad leeway in setting plans for the convention that has been scheduled to start Aug. 17 in a basketball arena in the midwestern city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Normally, the quadrennial presidential nominating conventions for both the Democratic and Republican parties draw about 50,000 people to the host cities, including 5,000 convention delegates and perhaps 20,000 members of the news media.
With barbed speeches attacking the opposition candidates, the conventions for decades have been spectacles on the American political scene designed to promote their party’s candidate about 10 weeks ahead of the early November votes. The four-day events typically culminate with massive red, white and blue balloon drops from the rafters of the convention halls.
The Democratic concern over the coronavirus pandemic could drastically change its party convention this year. President Donald Trump, however, is still planning to stage a traditional in-person Republican convention in the mid-Atlantic city of Charlotte, North Carolina, a week after the Democratic event.
Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez said the convention planning resolution approved by the rules committee in a conference call “will give the convention the tools necessary to ensure that every delegate is able to conduct their official business without putting their health at risk, whether by participating in person or by other means to allow for social distancing.”
The measure now goes to the full Democratic National Committee for approval in a vote by mail in the coming weeks.
The Democratic convention could be entirely a virtual event -- with delegates, party officials, reporters and others scattered across the country and connected by Zoom-like video technology -- or scaled back in some fashion.
Perez said, “Our No. 1 proposal is for the health and safety of the American people,” but added that final decisions have not been made.
Biden has regularly launched televised campaign attacks from his home in the eastern state of Delaware, but otherwise abandoned massive traditional public political rallies during the pandemic, as has the president.
Biden said Wednesday he “can hardly wait to get onto the stage” with Trump at the traditional face-to-face campaign debates in the month before the Nov. 3 election.
In the meantime, Biden said, “What I’m trying to do is play by the rules — the rules set by the governors and others that I not be out, that we be socially keeping ourselves back right now. But I’m looking forward to the time, as this begins to loosen up, to be able to go out and campaign and hold rallies and do the rest.”
Biden said, “I hope I’m going to be able to go to Milwaukee. I hope we’re going to have it beyond virtual. But look, we have to follow the science.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has left open the possibility of changes at the Republican convention, but Trump has often voiced his wish for a traditional event filled with cheering delegates and speeches attacking the Democrats.
“The president wants to go full steam ahead,” McDaniel said. “We are full steam ahead for in-person, in Charlotte.”
Democrats say they do not know what the coronavirus dangers may look like by August. Perez said Trump and McDaniel have downplayed the coronavirus threat even as they have asked the federal government for help in securing personal protective equipment, or PPE, for delegates attending the Republican convention.
Perez said Democrats would not ignore the health threat of a massive, in-person convention, but also have not ruled out asking the government for personal protective equipment for convention-goers.
“Unlike our Republican counterparts, we will not have our public health heads in the sand,” Perez said.
Another top Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has suggested that the party’s convention be moved from Milwaukee but still be held in Wisconsin. She has in mind holding it outdoors at a huge football stadium with appropriate social distancing between convention delegates to limit the crowd size.
Two such venues exist in Wisconsin: the University of Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium in the state capital of Madison, and the Green Bay Packers’ professional football Lambeau Field stadium.
"My suggestion to Mr. Perez was get a gigantic stadium and put people six feet apart," Pelosi said last week. "So maybe...instead of having 80,000 people there, you would have 16,000 people there and just do it all in one day."
Pelosi said she had confidence that Perez would “make the right decision based on health and science, but also with the opportunity to do something new."