Trump, Republicans hold hybrid convention with in-person events, after DNC goes virtual

The coronavirus pandemic forces both parties to rethink their national conventions.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Richard Nieva
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

President Donald Trump spoke at the White House to close the RNC.

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President Donald Trump and the Republican Party on Thursday closed out the GOP's nominating convention, an event that arrived a week after Democrats held their national gathering. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, both parties put together non-traditional conventions with virtual elements, avoiding technological glitches that could have come with the untested formats.

Republicans, though, leaned on in-person participation more heavily than Democrats did. While the RNC was a mixture of live and taped events, the party conducted the "official business" of the convention live from its host city, Charlotte, North Carolina. Meanwhile, only a small number of the Democrats' events included more than a few people in a room.

The GOP also assembled live audiences on each day of the convention. As the RNC opened on Monday, Trump addressed a crowd in Charlotte after delegates gathered in person to re-nominate him. The next day, First Lady Melania Trump spoke to supporters gathered at the White House Rose Garden. Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday addressed a crowd at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, followed by a performance of the national anthem by country singer Trace Adkins. Trump capped off the convention Thursday with a 70-minute speech in front of more than 1,000 people on the White House lawn, a move that drew criticism from health professionals. 

One event highlighted the different approaches of the RNC and DNC: the roll call. The procedural election, in which delegates from each of the nation's states and territories vote for the party's nominee, is the cornerstone of political conventions. In normal times, it's a raucous affair with arenas packed full of cheering people wearing star-spangled accessories and trinkets. 

This year, Republicans held a traditional, if scaled down, version of the roll call. The committee sent six delegates from the 57 US states and territories to vote in person in Charlotte, for a total of 336 people. The delegates, who were tested for Covid-19 when they arrived in the city, practiced social distancing and received temperature checks. One by one they cast their state's votes, standing in front of a white backdrop with the hashtag #RNC2020 printed on it. 

By contrast, Democrats last week took advantage of technology to fashion a virtual version of the roll call, with remote footage from each state and territory. Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell cast her state's votes from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of an iconic civil rights march in 1965. A masked Rhode Island chef posed on the beach with a plate of calamari, instantly becoming a meme. The format yielded mostly favorable reviews, using a matter of procedure as a way to showcase America's diversity and natural beauty. 


Rhode Island's DNC roll call segment instantly spawned a meme.


The conundrums of the roll call underscore the unique challenges of the moment. Nothing about 2020 is normal, and the conventions are just the latest example of our new bizarro lives. Court cases are conducted online. School is held remotely. Baseball is played without fans in the stands. The Democrats and Republicans moving to unconventional formats is more evidence of how our world is intermediated by the internet, particularly during a pandemic that has already killed more than 180,000 Americans.

Convention organizers have had the opportunity to use the new formats to their advantage, says Jill Schiefelbein, owner of Dynamic Virtual Events, a consultancy that helps companies plan online conferences and events. 

"Historically, these events have not been open to everyone in the same way," Schiefelbein said. "The RNC and DNC could leverage that access to reach a broader base."

National party conventions date back to the 1800s and were originally rowdy, spontaneous affairs filled with backroom deals and political horse trading. In 1924, the Democratic convention stretched nine days -- the longest in US history -- and required more than 100 rounds of voting and a couple of fistfights before a nominee, John Davis of West Virginia, was chosen. (Davis went on to lose to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.) It wasn't until 1932 that the candidates themselves even started showing up. That year, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided he'd travel to Chicago to accept his nomination in person. Prior to that, candidates often felt showing up at the conventions was too presumptive.

Today, conventions are scripted, choreographed affairs where little, let alone the nominee, is up in the air. Still, the events are important for generating excitement and introducing the country to up-and-coming political stars. This time around, organizers have had to balance a host of moving parts: livestreamed speeches, in-person voting, and the health and safety issues that arise from producing a professional blend of messaging and entertainment during the pandemic.

At the RNC, Republicans highlighted conservative figures who've become memes in the Trump era. Among them were Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the Missouri couple facing criminal charges after they stood outside their house pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in June. The program also featured Covington Catholic high school student Nicholas Sandmann, who went viral last year after an interaction with Omaha Tribe elder Nathan Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial.

Earlier this week, Republicans canceled an appearance by Mary Ann Mendoza, a Trump campaign advisor, after she promoted an anti-Semetic conspiracy theory by a supporter of QAnon, a right-wing hoax that falsely claims there's a "deep state" plot against the president. 

Attendees in Charlotte wore special badges that include contact tracing technology, according to NPR. The badges will keep a log of who's been near whom, and match attendees against names in a database in case anyone comes down with the virus, Jeffrey Runge, the committee's senior health adviser, is cited as having told city officials. Runge called the convention, which will host about 500 people instead of the once-expected 50,000, a "high-risk event."

The RNC didn't respond to multiple requests for interviews with its leadership or staff.

The 'reimagined' DNC

The four-day Democratic convention, which began Aug. 17, opened with a slickly produced two-hour broadcast that ended with former first lady Michelle Obama. The following day was highlighted by the "reimagined" roll call. The next day featured Democratic heavy hitters, including former President Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, the first Black and the first Asian American vice presidential nominee. 

The final day of the extravaganza ended with former Vice President Joe Biden accepting the presidential nomination from Wilmington, Delaware. Fireworks blazed above the convention center as people watched Biden on a screen from their cars, as if at a drive-in. 


Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris accepted their party's nominations.

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The scaled-down convention, whose theme was Uniting America, featured prerecorded video stories of everyday folks struggling through the pandemic and the tattered economy it's left behind. The DNC had for months been soliciting videos from supporters via stories.demconvention.com, responding to prompts like "I know Joe" or offering feedback on the party platform.

Over the course of four evenings, some of those videos were interspersed throughout a cavalcade of speakers -- including former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican -- championing the ability of Biden and Harris to lead the country out of crisis. 

The Democrats pulled out the stops in making sure the event would be available wherever potential voters wanted to watch it. Viewers were able to stream it on mobile devices through social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook, and on YouTube channels. It was also available on TV streaming platforms such as Apple TV, Roku, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

To stir up excitement, the DNC created a digital media kit to help supporters get engaged on social media. It included social media cover photos, profile picture frames, Zoom backgrounds and printable signs. It also asked supporters to use the hashtag #DemConvention on social media.