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Atlanta Civic Circle Columns Democracy Tom Baxter

Conventions go ‘nearly entirely virtual,’ but what will become of the funny hats?

Featured Image: Allen West

By Tom Baxter

By all accounts, the Texas State Republican Convention earlier this month was a red-hot mess. As such it was an ominous warning to both parties as they prepare for their pandemic national conventions.

Normally, the Texas GOP convention is a big, bustling affair, as close as any similar event comes to the atmosphere of a national convention. Party leaders were determined that this year would be no different, and pushed ahead with plans to have it in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, even after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner cancelled the event due to the spike in coronavirus cases. The Republicans took their case to court, but with time running short finally committed to convening online. Adding insult to injury, they won their case when it was too late to matter.

What was supposed to be a three-day convention turned into five, complete with online credential problems, frustrated delegates, frantic calls to software providers and canned speeches by Republican office holders, looped over and over again.

There was even a cyber attack, although the proceedings were such a jumble by then that it may not have mattered much. In the wee hours of the morning of July 20 the convention adjourned, after agreeing to schedule a second convention to handle the business it didn’t get to, and unseating party chairman James Dickey in favor of Allen West, a Tea Party figure who served one term in Congress from a seat in Florida. This was a long, long way from the old Texas Republican Party.

The two national parties remain committed to holding back-to-back conventions later this month, but exactly what form that will take still isn’t entirely clear. Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez has said his party’s convention will be “nearly entirely virtual,” but all we know about the part that won’t be virtual is that it will be held in Milwaukee. The televised portion has been pared all the way back to two hours a night, and it’s sure to be more buttoned down than the Republican National Convention the following week.

As of today, the GOP convention, or portions of it, will be back in Charlotte, although Republicans were said to be still looking for a stage for President Trump to make his acceptance speech on. Trump pulled out of Jacksonville last week, saying this wasn’t the right time to have a big event in a pandemic hotspot.
It looks like a lot of people in Jacksonville agreed with him. They went online to congratulate Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams for voicing his concerns about whether the convention could be held there safely, and spent little time bemoaning the loss of whatever withered prestige that hosting the convention might have brought. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, who had lobbied for his city to host the convention after Trump left Charlotte in a huff, seemed relieved that the parade left town early.

Aside from providing national television a steadily dwindling pool of content, there are things conventions are supposed to do. The most important of these is to nominate and approve the party’s nominee. For decades, that has seemed like a mere formality, and there’s no suspense about who the nominee will be in either party. But with the Texas Republican Convention in mind, the convention managers for both parties would be wise to review exactly how that’s going to go down this year. A well-timed hack or a programming failure could turn the nominee’s crowning moment into a farce.

Conventions are also where a lot of flesh is pressed: campaign managers meet prospective candidates, donors meet those in search of money, and the ambitious line up support for campaigns down the road. Sometimes a young speaker steps onto the big stage and electrifies the room. None of that, unfortunately, can be replaced with virtual content.Long term, that’s something both parties should worry about.

I do hope they save the funny hats, and the campaign paraphernalia that is usually on offer outside the convention hall. Maybe they can find a way to sell it online.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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