Joe Biden’s widely praised acceptance speech wrapped up the most unusual political convention we’ve seen — a big test for the Democrats in how they communicate their message during the coronavirus crisis.
If the goal was to project unity, empathy and purpose, it worked. As others have noted, the virtual nature of the convention by default removed some of the problems that plagued Hillary Clinton’s large-scale gathering four years ago, i.e. speakers getting booed or Bernie Sanders delegates expressing their discontent. The lack of a packed arena removed the chance for side dramas, whether that be disgruntled reaction to certain speakers (Michael Bloomberg?) or even certain protests outside the security perimeter.
The convention was an infomercial, one that will put the onus on the broadcast and cable networks to give equal treatment to the Republicans next week. The production got better as the week went along, and the inclusion of “everyday” people, much more so than a traditional convention, helped give it more authenticity. But it still was a two-hour promotion for the party and the nominee — and as a TV experience, it replays better in bites rather than big gulps. That probably was the point: The Biden campaign has been promoting some of the viral moments, like Michelle Obama’s speech, which drew more than 8 million views on Instagram.
So here’s a few things that worked and did not work, for this more unconventional convention.
Joe Biden’s speech. There’s already been plenty written about how Biden exceeded expectations in a speech that struck on the themes of hope and perseverance, but as a production it actually worked better because it was delivered in a room of only about 30 journalists who remained silent. Imagine Biden delivering the same address to a large convention crowd, with all the stops and starts for applause lines, and you end up with something that loses the gravity of the moment. Instead, Biden stared at the camera and connected in a more intimate way. It wasn’t as casual as a fireside chat, but it was written to reach viewers in their living rooms rather than the thousands in the arena waiting for the balloon drop. After it was over, when the Bidens walked outside to cheering, socially distanced supporters and a display of fireworks, you couldn’t help but feel it was a visual response to the Trump campaign’s campaign-in-a-basement criticism. But the Bidens, Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff didn’t lose sight of the threat of the pandemic. On front pages on Friday were photos of the four of them on the makeshift outdoor stage, all wearing masks.
Brevity. Biden’s speech, at 24.5 minutes, was one of the shortest for a Democratic convention in recent generations, and it was in line with a trend throughout the week: brevity. Democrats truncated their schedule to just two hours of primetime (albeit a few minutes over that) and also packed their most desired speakers and content into the most covered 10 p.m. ET frame. The result was a relatively quick pace that worked in the party’s favor: By and large, CNN and MSNBC kept to the Democrats’ convention feed, rather than try to bypass certain speeches and videos for their own commentary. That probably would not have happened in a normal cycle.
Personal stories. The parties have tried for some time to sprinkle their mix of regulars with so-called “everyday” Americans, but typically they get little broadcast or cable news play. That was different this year, as the virtual convention forced Democrats to give more thought on who to feature and how to present them. By having stories told from a person’s living room or backyard, the result was a bit more authentic than a stilted speech from an arena stage. The breakout example on Thursday was 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, who spoke of how Biden helped him overcome his stutter. It’s hard to watch the video without welling up, and it provided a memorable bridge to the rest of the final hour of the convention. Harrington’s speech also drew 8.2 million views on Twitter. Meanwhile, An Inconvenient Truth Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim’s biographical film about Biden, narrated by Octavia Spencer, was one of the best seen at a recent convention, closing with more words of endorsement from Sanders and Barack Obama.
The roll call. It’s hard to see conventions of the future going back to the slog of the presidential roll call, a throwback to a bygone era that is nevertheless an amusement for political junkies and to those who are fascinated by state nicknames. With everyone staying home, this convention tradition required a rethink, and the result was short clips of delegates and others appearing from their home states — perhaps most famously the Rhode Island state party chair announcing his delegation’s tally while standing next to a chef holding a plate of calamari. As a result, the roll call of the 57 states and territories played out as a kind of travelogue, and an unexpected moment of reassurance.
Social distance. Most politicos, if given a choice of speaking to an empty room or to a crowd, would choose the latter. Heading into the week, one of the bigger questions among network producers and correspondents was just how awkward a time of it the gallery of politicians would have in trying to deliver their remarks without the affirmation of applause. As it turned out, two of the better speeches of the week, from Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, might have benefited from this need for social distance, given that their gravity and seriousness would have seemed out of place in the jubilation of an arena. Like Bloomberg, not everyone seemed entirely comfortable in the format, and the fact that some of the speeches were pre-taped — including that of the former first lady — became a target of criticism from Trump and his supporters. But with few other options, by and large, even the taped speeches worked.
Musical acts. Democrats do have an advantage in the sheer number of music artists willing to dive into the partisan fray — along with quite a few who will balk when Trump uses their hits at campaign rallies. This convention was notable for its use of musical interludes, which generally worked if only to break up a chain of speeches and segments. That was particularly true on Thursday, with the National Anthem from the Chicks and a John Lewis tribute featuring John Legend and Common singing their Oscar-winning “Glory.” If the idea was to also get Instagram attention, it worked: A Billie Eilish moment drew 7.4 million views. There is some risk in overdoing the star power — “I’m starting to feel like I’m watching the Grammys,” tweeted Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp — and the GOP will try to tag Biden as beholden to the entertainment left. But is there any doubt that Trump wouldn’t want such a lineup for next week?
Here’s what didn’t work so well:
Talking heads. One of the features of the convention were segments in which Biden chatted with a screen of different Americans from all walks of life, as if he were the anchor and they were talk show guests. On Thursday, he chatted about the economy with different union workers. But Biden looked a bit more awkward in that role than he is in one on one conversations, and the segments themselves felt a bit rushed.
Comedy acts. Not until the final night did the convention have a burst of humor, with Sarah Cooper doing a Trump lip sync, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus moderating the proceedings in a very different way from her predecessors on the previous three nights. Her jokes singed Trump, but they were a bit off-key at times. After an inspirational segment on Biden’s faith, she said, “Just remember: Joe Biden goes to church so regularly that he doesn’t even need tear gas and a bunch of federalized troops to help him get there.” Her standout moment came later, in a serious way, when she described her friendship with Biden and how he called her after she was diagnosed with cancer. When it came to providing a dose of stand-up, this might have been a moment when an audience would have helped, or perhaps having dual performers riff with each other. As it turned out, the most amusing segment of the night was a gathering of Biden’s vanquished Democratic rivals, emceed by Sen. Cory Booker, that was casual and conversational. “Why does my girlfriend like you more than me?” Booker, referring to Rosario Dawson, asked Sanders. “Because she’s smarter than you, and that’s the obvious answer,” the Vermont senator quipped.
The economy. Biden did talk about the economy, and he made the case that many of the COVID-19 and social justice issues highlighted throughout the week, whether racial justice or immigration, are linked to growth. Other speakers, like Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, tied their speeches to middle-class incomes. But the current state of the economy, and its impact on employment and household incomes, should have had more play. It’s an issue where Trump still has a distinct advantage in some polls. Next week, he’s likely to make the case that, despite that troubling times now, he was responsible for an economic boom pre-COVID-19, and that he can do it again.