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Columns Tom Baxter

Georgia, especially Atlanta, is prominent in Democratic Zoomland convention

By Tom Baxter

In 1988, when the Democrats packed themselves into The Omni to hold the national convention which nominated Michael Dukakis, their party was still hanging on to most of the local and statewide elected offices in Georgia.

Those days are long past, but Georgia, and particularly Atlanta, will be featured prominently in this week’s Democratic National Convention in Zoomland. Stacey Abrams and state Rep. Sam Park will be among a group of young Democratic keynoters Tuesday night, and former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates also has a Tuesday night slot. On Thursday night, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will give one of the speeches leading up to Joe Biden’s nomination acceptance speech.

A tribute to U.S. Rep. John Lewis is also planned, and you can expect some Atlanta faces among the typical Americans you’ll see briefly in this virtual rendition of an American political convention.

Whether all this presence at the convention means the Democrats will put serious resources into Georgia this year is one of those questions which has arisen before, and generally the answer has been “No.” National political campaigns always begin with great intentions, and dwindle down to cold realities as the leaves change colors.

One reason this year might be different is that the state has two U.S. Senate races on the ballot, giving Democratic dollars spent here a larger potential impact. Nor can the polls showing Biden and Donald Trump in a very close race in Georgia be ignored entirely. With 16 Electoral College votes — the same as Michigan and two less than Ohio — Georgia may be big enough that the party can no longer afford not to invest in it, if trends show it to be moving blue.

Social distancing was unknown at that 1988 convention, a crowded, sweaty affair which Dukakis and his running mate Lloyd Bentsen followed with a three-day jaunt around the country, speaking to big crowds at every stop. Dukakis left Atlanta with a 17-point lead in the polls, as you’re likely to hear mentioned frequently this week. That Dukakis lost the race not only shows that polls can be unreliable. It illustrates how much larger the middle of public opinion — the voters who could still be persuaded to change their preference in the closing months — was back then.

The campaign style which circumstances have forced upon Biden could not be different from the flesh-pressing gyrations of Dukakis. To find a better comparison, we might have to go back to one of the pivotal presidential races in U.S. history, the 1896 battle between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Still staggering from the devastation wrought by the 1893 Depression, Democrats in 1896 abandoned their support for the gold standard and nominated Bryan, an electrifying speaker and former Nebraska congressman. Bryan waged one of the most energetic campaigns in the nation’s history, traveling across the country by train and making hundreds of speeches to audiences estimated to total 5 million.

In contrast, McKinley’s campaign was sedentary from beginning to end. The year before the election, the wealthy industrialist and political mastermind Mark Hanna divested himself of all his business interests to devote all his energy to McKinley’s campaign and rented a winter mansion in Thomasville, Ga. McKinley joined him there for an extended visit, and met with visiting delegations of southern Republicans, often paying for their travel. These were solidly Democratic states, but the delegates, some of them black, helped insure the nomination for the former Ohio governor.

Hanna pressed McKinley to hit the road and compete with Bryan after the convention, but he elected to go home to Canton, Ohio, and enlarge on a strategy employed by a couple of previous Republican presidents, the front porch campaign. He spoke daily to invited delegations of voters, more than 700,000 by the end of the campaign. Canton became a boomtown, with daily parades and hawkers selling McKinley souvenirs. He defeated Bryan, and did so again in 1900.

Television, the laptop and the cell phone have become today’s equivalent to McKinley’s front porch, and Biden, zooming from his basement, has so far been effective in that space. When he gives his convention acceptance speech, you’ll be able to tell Alexa to turn him on, or watch on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Twitch. It’s not like being live in a big hall full of people, but it’s a highly developed approach to the realities of this campaign year. Biden needs a big moment this week, and it remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be for Biden when the campaign widens after the two national conventions. But so far the Democratic nominee is channeling William McKinley.

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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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