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Trump, Republicans to test hybrid convention, after DNC goes virtual – CNET

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President Donald Trump’s nominating convention kicks off Monday.

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.

President Donald Trump and the Republicans are getting set for the party’s national nominating convention, an event that arrives the week after Democrats pulled off a mostly virtual gathering and avoided technological glitches that could’ve come with the untested format.

The Republican National Convention, which starts Monday, will be a mixture of live and taped events that’ll lean on in-person participation more heavily than the Democrats did. The Grand Old Party is opting for a hybrid model, conducting the “official business” of the convention live from its host city, Charlotte, North Carolina, the Republican committee says. 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 will likely be 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, television-worthy affair with arenas packed with cheering people wearing star-spangled accessories and trinkets.  

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the Democrats fashioned a virtual version of the roll call, with remote footage from the 57 US states and territories. Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell cast her state’s votes from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the backdrop of an iconic civil rights march in 1965 in Selma. 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 vast natural beauty and diversity. 

Republicans are opting for a more traditional, if scaled down, version of the roll call. The committee will send six delegates from each state or territory to vote in person in Charlotte, for a total of 336 people. The delegates, who will be tested for COVID-19 before they arrive in the city, will wear masks, practice social distancing and receive temperature checks. The event will be streamed online, as well as broadcast by major TV news networks.

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, for its part, hasn’t yet released an official list of speakers, but the expected lineup includes Melania and Ivanka Trump, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, according to The Wall Street Journal. The broad focus of the convention will be the “forgotten men and women of America,” Trump campaign officials told Axios. Each night of the convention will have its own theme, such as “land of greatness” and “land of heroes.” 

The convention will also feature conservative figures who’ve become memes in the Trump era. Among them are Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the Missouri couple who stood outside their house pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in June. Another guest 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 advisor, is cited as having told city officials. Runge called the convention, which’ll 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 candidate. 

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. 

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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 and Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Prime Video. (YouTube livestreamed the DNC and will also stream the RNC.)

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.

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