With the coronavirus pandemic still preventing Americans from gathering in large numbers for the foreseeable future, it is becoming increasingly likely that both Democrats and Republicans will cancel their planned in-person convention in favor of a virtual event. Earlier this week the Democratic National Committee’s influential Rules and Bylaws Committee approved a plan that would allow convention organizers to create an event that doesn’t require delegates to attend in person.

According to DNC Chairman Tom Perez, the change gives organizers “the tools necessary to adapt and plan” for a gathering and “ensure that every delegate is able to accomplish their official business without putting their own health at risk — whether that be participating in person or by other means to allow for social distancing.”

In any case, the political party conventions that draw tens of thousands of attendees every four years are going to look a lot different in 2020. This change has many leaders and political analysts wondering: have we seen the last of political party conventions in their current form?

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, former George W. Bush senior adviser Karl Rove argued that for the past two decades party conventions have been largely worthless because the outcome was already known. Moreover, he noted, most of the real work of establishing a formal party platform takes place during daytime when most Americans aren’t watching. 

“(T)he conventions were getting long in the tooth, anyway,” Rove concluded in the piece. “Their reinvention will be a test of each party’s leadership in both communicating its message and responding to a pandemic.”

This isn’t to say that the function of conventions will change significantly, because they still hold a formal purpose.

“We will have conventions because you’ve got to get together and nominate a candidate, write a platform, review the party rules,” Rove told Fox News host Dana Perino on The Daily Briefing. “But these big extravaganzas of four days of convention activity with dozens of speakers preceded by weeks of meetings of the platform committee — 50,000 people were in Cleveland for the Republican convention [in 2016], over 50,000 were in Philadelphia for the Democratic convention — it’s going to be hard in the age of coronavirus to do that.”

Even before the coronavirus arrived on the scene, the party conventions appeared ripe for a rapid evolution. In the aftermath of the 2016 GOP convention, presidential historian Tevi Troy observed that “factional party leaders” were clearly not calling the shots as Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the party nomination and ultimately to the White House. 

“(The 2016 convention) may still presage a new era in conventions, one marked by bitter intra-party divides, instantaneous communications capabilities, and technology-driven efforts by individuals and party factions to circumvent the existing party machinery to reach the people directly,” Troy wrote in National Affairs. He went on to describe how the television age prompted both parties to change their nominating systems so that the nominee was all-but-assured by the time the convention rolled around. This allowed them to project a more appealing, unified face to a watching public. In today’s digital age, however, technology allows candidates — and for that matter anyone else — to gain access to millions of readers and followers, hindering the party establishment’s power to control and influence public debate.

Depending on how the conventions are carried out this year in light of COVID-19, a movement could arise to strip the parties of much of their traditional pomp and circumstance in favor of a smaller, more functional event. 

“I could never go to another political convention and be perfectly happy,” wrote CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza, in response to Rove’s op-ed. “At a minimum, the parties need to drastically rethink what conventions should be for — and how to make that happen.”

Troy predicted that “future technological and ideological developments will reshape the American invention that is the party convention in ways as yet unforeseen.” All indicators now suggest he may have been more right than he realized.


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Image Credit: Photo by Erik Drost