Political conventions have long felt like relics of a bygone era -- antiquated nominating necessities packaged in pageantry and funny hats, all made for the promise of massive television audiences.
But there will be no rooms for even metaphorical smoke to fill this year. The conventions will feel like products of this precise moment -- reflecting the limitations imposed by COVID-19, the unease and unrest that has rocked American communities and the unique circumstances of the two presumptive presidential nominees who will still be seeking to showcase their messages to a national audience.
Here’s a look at five reasons that the 2020 Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention will be unlike any other such events:
Balloons and streamers are out; Zooms and livestreams are in. Aside from pro forma platform approvals and the actual presidential and vice-presidential roll-call votes, there will hardly be any action at all in either Milwaukee or Charlotte, despite years' worth of preparations in both cities.
All of the major speakers -- including former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump -- will be speaking at remote locations, with most appearing in almost entirely empty rooms. The actual look and feel will be different for the two conventions, but leaders in both parties have cast the challenges as potential opportunities to broaden the conventions' reach across the country.
Expect fewer elected leaders making shorter speeches, no traditional "keynote" addresses, and virtual watch parties -- with production tweaks drawing inspiration from how sports are being televised in the age of social distancing. Planners in both parties say to expect surprises, and they’re not even referring to the endless array of technological and logistical snafus that could present themselves.
Also unknown: How many viewers at home will find conventions without cheers, jeers and colorful displays to be a satisfying experience.
Biden and the left
Former Vice President Joe Biden captured the Democratic nomination despite the progressive movement, not because of it. Then COVID-19 changed everything -- sidelining, among many other things, much of the expected intra-party drama that surrounds the run-up to a typical convention.
Now, emboldened by inequities revealed by the economic, health care and racial crises gripping the nation, the left will have some sway. While major speaking slots are crammed with establishment faces and even a few Republicans, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are among the convention headliners. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will also speak -- though she’s only scheduled for one minute.
Biden’s team crafted a platform in coordination with progressive leaders, but some are saying they will vote against it anyway. The selection of Sen. Kamala Harris to join the ticket marks a few different milestones, though she has never been close to the party’s left.
More broadly, after five months in which Biden was by design a less-than-regular participant in the news cycle, he and his party will be the national focus for a sustained period of time.
A party that is still grappling with its identity in the age of a pandemic and of Trump will be under fresh scrutiny, under unpredictable circumstances.
The Trump show
It won’t be nearly the show that the ultimate showman wanted. But, after first announcing a new venue and then settling for a virtual option, the convention that will nominate Trump for a second term will assuredly have Trumpian touches.
An acceptance speech at either the White House or Gettysburg would break precedent and keep lawyers busy assuring compliance with ethics laws. Beyond that, Republicans are scrambling to put together in weeks what Democrats have been working on for months.
Meanwhile, a record-breaking number of boldfaced Republican names are choosing not to participate. This convention is not expected to feature any former presidents or former presidential nominees, but it will feature plenty of people named "Trump."
The president’s first convention was a wild affair -- memorable for First Lady Melania Trump’s apparent plagiarism of a chunk of her speech, jeers Sen. Ted Cruz earned with his advice to "vote your conscience," and Trump’s dark and uncommonly long acceptance speech.
How Trump fills the hours this month will be clues to how he hopes to frame the race ahead.
Focus on COVID-19
Both Democrats and Republicans spent months hoping they would still be able to hold in-person conventions this summer. The fact that neither parties can is a powerful reflection of the times and an admission that the coronavirus is still raging nationwide.
Republicans mostly hoped they could get away with a traditional event without many safety precautions, whereas Democrats drafted dozens of proposals attempting to guarantee attendees’ safety, including plans for extensive rapid testing and health screenings. No one knew what the state of the virus and transmission rate would be in mid-August.
Fast forward to the here and now, and the sad facts and tough politics around the virus will be front and center for the next two weeks.
Democrats are pulling no punches. Both Biden and Harris have laid the economic destruction and death toll from COVID-19 in America squarely at the president’s feet. That means voters could spend yet another convention season talking health care and wrestling with the reality of income inequity in the nation.
Should Republicans seek to sidestep those tough conversations, they will run the risk of looking out of touch.
Big picture, as is the case with every incumbent, it’s nearly impossible to run on anything but your record. Unfortunately for the president, recent polls show voters struggling to trust his team and his ability to handle the crises of the moment.
Still, Trump will work hard to turn a page on COVID-19 and present a nation under control, on the mend and ready for rebound.
Ethos of equity
Presidential elections are the stuff of textbooks, but Americans this year didn’t wait to make history.
In the run-up to these conventions, both activists and average citizens took to the streets (and every boardroom) and demanded racial equity with more concrete and concentrated vision then the nation had seen in decades.
Hardly any politician, except perhaps Trump, is talking about issues of criminal justice, racial discrimination and the country’s past in the same way they were six months ago.
And, as both parties are very aware, one of the deciding factors of this race could be whether those who marched in June are willing and committed to vote in November too.
Some young, independent voters are uneasy about a Democratic ticket that features a tough-on-crime, former senator next to a former prosecutor. Democrats worried about getting out the vote know they still need to convince some in their potential base that their leaders represent real change.
It’s going to be a tightrope to navigate with Trump and Republicans telling older, whiter independent voters that all Democrats want is to defund the police.
Watch for Democrats to play up the fact that their convention lineup has a racial, ethnic and generational spread that reflects the actual diversity of America in this moment.