This story is part of , CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.
President Donald Trump and the Republicans on Monday kicked off the party’s national nominating convention, an event that arrives a week after Democrats pulled off a mostly virtual gathering and avoided technological glitches that could have come with the untested format.
The Republican National Convention, which opened up with the party formally nominating Trump as its candidate, is set to be a mixture of live and taped events that leans on in-person participation more heavily than the Democrats did. The GOP is conducting the “official business” of the convention live from its host city, Charlotte, North Carolina. By contrast, only a small number of the Democrats’ events included more than a few people in a room.
The biggest difference between the RNC and DNC so far has been the roll call, the cornerstone of political conventions, in which delegates from each of the nation’s states and territories vote for the party’s nominee. In normal times, it’s a raucous affair with arenas packed full of cheering people wearing star-spangled accessories and trinkets.
In the face of, Republicans on Monday 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. Trump addressed the convention on site after clinching the nomination.
Later Monday, the committee aired speeches by former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. from Washington, DC. The convention avoided technical hiccups during its primetime broadcast.
In contrast to the GOP’s nomination vote, Democrats last week fashioned 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 the procedural election as a way to showcase America’s diversity and natural beauty.
The different approaches 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 175,000 Americans.
“The challenge lies in how these politicians will connect with viewers at home, through the TV or computer, when there’s no live audience,” said Kate Malloy, the creative director at New Hampshire-based Malloy Events.
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 to balance a host of moving parts: livestreamed speeches, in-person voting, and the health and safety issues that’ll inevitably arise from producing a professional blend of messaging and entertainment during the pandemic.
Convention organizers have 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.”
The RNC’s expected lineup also includes first lady Melania Trump and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. Each night of the convention will have its own theme, such as “land of greatness” and “land of heroes.” The convention is being broadcast by major TV news networks, and streamed on platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Twitch.
Republicans are also highlighting conservative figures who’ve become memes in the Trump era. Monday’s program featured 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. Also expected is former 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.
Attendees at the RNC will wear 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.
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.