2016 DNC Convention
Credit: Mike D/Flickr

Donald Trump’s failed rally in Tulsa last night had many important implications, but among the most important is the reality that not even die-hard Trump supporters are willing to attend a large indoor gathering as long as COVID-19 is spreading unchecked. That’s not great news for Donald Trump, who would like people to go back to normal to boost the economy, even if it means a massive increase in infections and death. But it is good news for the country that not even Trump’s most desperate attempts at turning the pandemic into a culture war flash point are pushing even energized conservatives to throw caution totally to the wind.

Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees should take note as they prepare for their summer conventions. By now it should be abundantly clear by now that given the increasing rates of COVID-19 infection and the rudderless federal response to the crisis, it probably won’t be any safer to hold a mass indoor gathering two months from now than it would be today.

In keeping with their different levels of concern about the virus, electoral incentives and embrace of scientific grounding for public policy, Republicans are more adamant about holding a traditional convention than Democrats. Trump himself, of course, has been consistent in his insistence that the RNC convention have the full attendance and regalia–in part to honor himself, and in part to send a signal to America that everyone should go back to normal as quickly as possible so that he can tout a revitalized economy. Unfortunately for Trump, even Republicans have been considering a scaled-down convention in late August. The city of Charlotte, N.C., refused to host the convention the way Trump had demanded, forcing the RNC to decamp to Jacksonville, FL. But the combined impact of COVID-19 and the requirements of staging a convention on such short notice mean that GOP efforts will by necessity be dampened:

When asked about preparations for the convention, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told CNBC that the city has secured “over 10,000 hotel rooms” and expects the convention “to bring an economic impact of more than $100 million to our city.”

But with just months to go before the convention, organizers must take into account not just the short amount of time they have to get all aspects together, but also how the pandemic and protests will impact the event.

The Republican National Committee has indicated that it has confidence organizers will be able to pull off the convention.

But the failure of Trump’s latest rally should be a signal to Republican officials that even if they plan for the full shindig in Jacksonville, they may have a difficult time getting their delegates and associated retinue to get on planes and buses and show up to the big hall. Better to hold a virtual convention than a big party to which no one shows up.

Democrats have been taking a much more responsible and cautious approach. After initially dragging its heels somewhat, the DNC took action to begin to prepare for a more virtual convention. On June 11th, DNC members overwhelmingly passed a resolution moving the Convention date to August 17th, and giving both Convention organizers broad authority to make all changes necessary to protect conventioneers and the surrounding community during the pandemic. These changes could range from minor alterations to staging part or even all of the convention virtually.

As with the GOP but to an even greater degree, it’s unclear how many Democratic delegates would even bother to attend if it were held in person in Milwaukee—even among Wisconsin locals. Biden’s team is already planning for smaller streaming events in and around the convention, no matter what ends up happening—though Biden does plan to accept the nomination in person in any case. To their credit, Democrats appear to be more concerned with the impact on the local Milwaukee economy and public health as a result of their decision, than about the political optics.

Still, Democratic leadership still hasn’t given full indication of its plans–likely in the hope of a rosier circumstances around COVID-19 than currently exist, and in hopes of having to make as few changes to fundamental processes as possible. Republicans are in much the same boat, with delegates worried about the small-d democratic processes of running a political party (already difficult and fraught with controversy in person) becoming complicated or practically impossible over videoconference.

For the health of the public and the delegates, both parties need to come to terms with the reality that, in large part due to the Trump administration’s incompetent response to the pandemic, whatever economic and optics benefits may come from holding a convention in person would be dramatically overruled by the negative impacts of risking an outbreak for political reasons, taking stage in a hall filled with empty seats, and endangering the health of each party’s most committed activists (most of whom tend to be in older and more vulnerable populations) as well as residents and local businesses.

It is unlikely that the RNC, which ultimately answers to Trump, will heed this advice. Despite his setback in Tulsa, Trump will likely insist on his big event, if for no other reason than to draw contrast with the Democrats’ more subdued affair.

But the public is not on Trump’s side of this issue. Most Americans favor caution about big public events during this crisis. And it’s not even entirely clear in our hyperpartisan era how much conventions even matter anymore in terms of persuasion. There is not much to be gained, and a great deal to lose, from insisting on holding an old-school convention. With modern communications technology as good as it has become, and people all over the world using videoconference platforms to conduct work of all kinds from home, both parties should simply acknowledge our current reality now and make plans to conduct their business accordingly.

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David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.