The Virtual DNC: No ‘Fans’ and a Script Without Drama

11 mins read

The Chicago Cubs had stormed back against the St. Louis Cardinals to salvage a split of their double-header by the time Amy Klobuchar kicked off the speakers lineup at the Democratic National Convention Monday night. By the time Michelle Obama finally brought the action to a close, the Braves were shocking the Nationals with a dramatic walk-off 9th inning home run.

At least the baseball was exciting.

The political bash that took up two scripted hours on prime-time television? Not so much. The big question for both major political parties at the beginning of convention season is the same one facing big-time sports: Do fans matter?

Crowds aren’t possible in politics because of the pandemic, and party operatives are desperately trying to make their programing at least as interesting, if not more enjoyable, as a happy hour on Zoom.

They have had plenty of time to plan. The Democratic National Committee announced the event would be virtual long ago, and since then the grumbling about the loss of the fabled balloon drop in a packed convention hall has become its own cliché. Then again, the unconventional convention has also lost a lot of the little things: threatened floor fights; pitched battles over the party platform; disgruntled delegates spinning conspiracy theories to reporters in hallways; lobbyists horse-trading over hors d’oeuvres; and the party faithful, some deep in their cups, booing and cheering and dancing in the aisles to the political theater on stage.

Wrapped together, and when combined with countless other little things, those are the elements that make up a buzzing convention crowd. And now it is all gone.

Rick Gentile understands the loss. He just knows it differently after a lifetime covering everything from the World Series to the Olympics as an executive producer at CBS Sports. “You are playing in Ohio Stadium, and there are 103,000 people in the stands, all dressed in red,” he told RealClearPolitics before the night started. “They cheer as you run 80 yards with the football, and the crowd goes wild. The dream, right?

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional or an amateur or a student athlete. That gets your heart going  and gets everybody on the sideline going too.”

Without actual people present, everything changes. Erik Smith, who was creative director for the last three Democratic conventions, agrees. He told RCP that losing the crowd could mean “your presentation might lack some excitement, energy, enthusiasm” and that a virtual event with speakers across the country means “more things could go wrong.”

“On the flip side,” he continued, “a much tighter compact presentation could be more appealing to most viewers.” Game-time decisions can be make-or-break, calls he would likely avoid if he were in charge again by producing something that would “look a lot like the 30-minute informercial we did during the Obama campaign.” That paid spot aired across television networks in 2008 and earned bigger ratings than the final game of the World Series that year.

But Democrats — and the Republicans who will do this next week — need to fill eight hours of programming, not just a half-hour. And that proved to be a challenge Monday night.

With DNC Chairman Tom Perez promising a “remarkable” show and with the networks left to just press “play,” party programmers had carte blanche to try and make the most of a bad situation. Much of that responsibility fell to actress Eva Longoria. Playing the role of  Helen Mirren-like documentarian one moment and Vanna White-like letter-turner the next, the star best known for her role on “Desperate Housewives” moved adeptly from segment to segment, and there were many. She took viewers from family living rooms to family farms, highlighting concerned voters across the country. She also had to introduce the many panels of guests. A panel of first responders discussed the coronavirus and a panel of Democrats discussed race in America and a panel of rogue Republicans discussed why they were disaffected by their party.

It was dizzying even for the professional observers. Halfway through the digital pageantry, Ed O’Keefe struggled to pin down just a single analogy. “A lot of what we’ve seen so far from this virtual convention,” the CBS correspondent confessed on air, “is some cross between ‘Big Brother,’ ‘American Idol,’ and a Jerry Lewis telethon.”

The overarching theme Monday night was supposed to be national unity while the underlying subtext stressed by every speaker and canned bit was the utter failure of the Trump administration to deal competently with the pandemic, the recession, and boiling racial tensions. Democrats gave a Republican, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the role of assuring moderate voters in the television audience that Joe Biden wouldn’t take the country too far left. They simultaneously assigned self-described Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders the task of encouraging progressives to believe that transformational change would still be possible with Biden in the White House.

It was a careful left-right script, and everything mostly went to plan. Prerecording has its advantages. There were no awkward moments such as Al and Tipper Gore’s over-long kiss onstage in 2000 or the cringe-worthy and now-viral Macarena dance of 1996. All the same, even the best laid plans can come off as hackneyed. Or worse.

Kasich offered his taped soliloquy about America standing at a crossroads by, yes, standing at a crossroads as a drone hovered overhead to capture the footage.

Andrew Cuomo was more curious, even troubling. The New York governor prompted social media outrage by claiming during his prerecorded spiel that the coronavirus, which has killed 170,000 Americans, was “just a metaphor” for how the national “body politic has been weakened.”

There were moments for eye-rolling: Sen. Amy Klobuchar made a folksy joke about Trump wanting to defund the post office but needing to change his address first. And there were understandable miscues: a handful of camera-shy voters froze onscreen seemingly unsure just how much emotion more than a smile was appropriate. Others made the most of their spotlight, such as Kristin Urquiza, who basically accused the president of personally killing her father.

Red meat is standard fare at conventions, but even so, this was pretty raw. “After five agonizing days, he died alone in the ICU with a nurse holding his hand,” Urquiza said during a taped recording early in the program. “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump and for that, he paid with his life.”

Dark and directly to the point, it was the sort of thing that will keep Democrats, and Republicans for that matter, talking the next morning. It also set the stage for what came later that night, a finale that essentially made all the scripted speeches and musical performances look like preprogramming. The end of the night belonged to the most popular member of the previous administration.

In prerecorded remarks, Michelle Obama took shots at the president without mercy. Once again, she was “the closer.” Trump had not just failed in the last four years, she told the camera, he was incapable of leadership because of “his character.”

“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head,” she continued. “He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”

The former first lady spoke about the compassion and empathy of Biden, but her warning was stark and ominous. “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can and they will if we do not change things in this election,” she said, urging Democrats to get out the vote “like our lives depend on it.”

Democrats will learn whether or not Michelle Obama hit her mark soon enough, most likely when ratings are released and later when new polling follows. A review of Google’s real-time search trends for Monday may not be promising. Seven of the top 10 were about baseball. 

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