Democrats said Thursday they will delay their 2020 presidential nominating convention from mid-July to mid-August in hopes that the coronavirus pandemic will have subsided enough to allow the party to gather in person for a traditional celebration.
The Democratic National Convention Committee said the convention, which had been scheduled to take place in Milwaukee, would be postponed until the week of Aug. 17, though the committee did not specify whether it would be in person or virtual.
"In our current climate of uncertainty, we believe the smartest approach is to take additional time to monitor how this situation unfolds,” said Joe Solmonese, CEO of the committee.
The postponement came as pressure was mounting from Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, and party leaders to consider alternatives.
The new date would have Democrats meeting just a week before Republicans are scheduled to renominate President Donald Trump in Charlotte, N.C.. The president has vowed that will go on; the RNC has given no public indication of delays or modifications.
Veterans of the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia said their party officials are certain to confront logistical challenges as they try to move the nationally televised event, which was expected to draw at least 50,000 delegates, journalists, party officials, donors, and supporters.
Describing a sometimes seat-of-the-pants scramble even in the best of times, they said it could be tough for organizers to raise money, lock down hotel space, and make sure the arena is available.
Milwaukee’s mayor and several aldermen had cast doubt on a traditional convention this summer, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Even before Thursday’s announcement some advocated a virtual gathering in which delegates vote electronically and prominent speeches are broadcast on TV and streamed online.
Conventions typically bring fanfare and an economic boost. Given the coronavirus-driven downturn, it could be an opportunity for a rebound in Milwaukee’s hospitality and retail sectors — but only if it’s deemed safe. A Marquette University poll of Wisconsin voters released this week showed that 62% think the convention should be virtual. Only 22% said it should occur as it had been planned before the virus hit.
The months leading up to the convention are typically active with promotional events and fund-raisers. By April of 2016, Philadelphia had already covered the city in painted donkeys, placed at tourist sites and hotels assigned to the state delegations. A program to sign up volunteers had launched in January.
For the candidates, especially challengers trying to unseat a sitting president, the conventions offer a rare week of unfettered prime-time television to deliver a vision to the country. Democrats were hoping the Milwaukee event would serve as a unifying moment after a primary that pit various factions against one another. In their ideal scenario, they envision Biden receiving a warm endorsement from rival Bernie Sanders, with Barack Obama giving a major address.
The selection of Wisconsin — a state Trump won narrowly in 2016 and expected to again be crucial — was intended to boost Democrats there.
Presidential candidates typically receive a polling bounce after the weeklong infomercial of a party convention, and both parties rely on the events to kick off the sprint to Election Day.
Republicans, already unified, have advantages. As president, Trump can dominate the airwaves with or without a convention. The party that holds the White House typically has a fund-raising edge.
Milwaukee’s host committee said as of January it had raised $25 million of its $70 million goal. It has not provided an update since then. The months just prior to the 2016 convention were important for bringing in money, said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who chaired the Philadelphia’s host committee.
“There was more enthusiasm built up for the convention and we had very good fund-raising months. They’re not going to have that," Rendell said. "If a company can’t pay its workers, if it has to lay off 40% of its workforce, are they going to buy a box or cut a huge check?”
Rendell predicted Milwaukee would fall short of its fund-raising goals. "The DNC would have to step in and put up the money needed to run the convention, but that’s hard because that’s money the DNC wants in the fall to persuade the electorate or spike turnout,” he said.
Planning a convention is a collaborative dance between the city and its host committee, the national party and the campaign of the nominee.
Anna Adams-Sarthou, former communications director for Philadelphia’s host committee, said these next few months were when DNC members, state delegations and the media flocked to Philadelphia for site visits. “You’re thinking about meeting your budget. You have to hit benchmarks for construction. And how do you plan if things aren’t normal in June or July? How do you physically get the arena ready?”
A slightly smaller, stripped down show might be an option though, said Kevin Washo, former executive director of Philadelphia 2016 DNC host committee, especially if timelines get crunched.
“Maybe the production value isn’t as grand,” Washo said. “If you look back at 1980 compared to 2016 or 2012, the production quality has gone off the charts in terms of slickness, but that wasn’t always the case. A lot of times they were big wooden stages, banners and drapes. So maybe they go bare bones.”
One reason the Democrats had scheduled their nominating convention earlier than in past presidential election years was to avoid conflicting with the summer Olympics in Tokyo, an event that now won’t take place until 2021. But moving the convention presents additional uncertainties — like whether the Milwaukee Bucks’ home arena will still be available if the NBA’s season has returned.
At this time in 2016, Philadelphia Democrats were making hotel reservations for all the convention guests, said Bob Brady, the city’s Democratic chairman.
The Democratic National Convention Committee said Thursday that it had confirmed that the host arena, the Fiserv Forum, and hotels in the area are available in August. Still, with the coronavirus’ path uncertain, it’s not clear if even in August such a large gathering will be possible.
In the end, Brady argued, it would not be a tremendous loss if the convention didn’t happen, especially weighed against health concerns.
“It becomes postponing a party, and people want to have a party and they deserve to have a party," he said, "but it’s a party.”