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The Strange Success of the Coronavirus Conventions


The faces flicker across our screens, making a pitch in speech and song to voters who may or may not be listening. To document the national political conventions in this pandemic year, Damon Winter went into ordinary people’s homes in upstate New York and projected images from the live broadcasts across bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, basements — wherever the residents typically watch or listen to the news. The photographs he took of these projections capture the strangeness of this year’s conventions, and how dramatically they differed from the events in a typical year.

Forced by Covid-19 to hold virtual events, the conventions downsized from arena-scale spectacles to meet the way we watch now: on living-room screens and browsers and smartphones, perpetually distracted and multitasking, quickly moved and easily enraged.

In doing so, both parties, to varying degrees, pulled off something that they had tried and failed to do ever since the conventions were first broadcast on the radio in 1924, and on television in 1948. It took nearly 100 years and a global pandemic, but the conventions’ messages finally matched the medium.

Change was overdue, for the placard-waving and speechifying format had changed little since the first conventions were held in the 1830s. Then, these gatherings were thrilling and consequential, essentially telescoping the entire modern presidential selection process — from straw polls to caucuses to primaries to nomination — into three or four days of raucous debate and furious backroom dealings. Conventions began with a crowd of candidates vying for the prize, and it usually took multiple ballots and an occasional all-nighter to reach a decision. In 1924, it took the Democrats 103 rounds of voting to settle on a nominee.

This made for irresistible political theater, so radio networks began exhaustive convention coverage. But broadcasting the conventions meant that the gatherings had two, not always compatible purposes: rally the faithful, and sell the candidate to the wider electorate.

When television took over in the 1950s, the conventions’ shouting, cavernous atmosphere was a mismatch to television’s intimate scale. And after 1970s-era party reforms assured that the nominee would nearly always be known before the convention, their drama disappeared. Modern conventions minted new political stars and produced some memorable television moments, yet they rarely changed minds or decided elections. Conventions are nothing but infomercials, critics grumbled, high on flash and empty of substance.

The 2020 conventions actually were infomercials, but strangely effective ones. They reflected the odd mashup of our current media moment, and more clearly communicated the essence of each party and its nominee than the traditional convention format.

ImageJoe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, at the Democratic National Convention.

First up came the Democrats. Television celebrities mixed with social media celebrities. Democratic stalwarts blended with disaffected Republicans. Gorgeously shot film clips contrasted with low-fi, gloriously earnest state roll calls. Traditional speeches were rare enough to make the viewer take notice. It was a Facebook-era convention, its pieces tidily packaged to go viral.

Freed from the convention hall, the Democrats staged moments that recalled some of the modern era’s most powerful pieces of televised political theater. Michelle Obama’s emotional exhortation to act and vote recalled the similarly intimate “Checkers” speech Richard Nixon delivered in the earliest days of network television, a personal talk that saved his vice presidential spot on the 1952 Republican ticket.

The sparse, quiet audiences before Kamala Harris and Joe Biden had the feel of the rapt group sitting before Ronald Reagan in 1964 as he delivered a televised address in support of Barry Goldwater that turned the actor into a conservative political star. And like the best scripted television, the event was character-driven, telling the story of a son of Scranton named Joe Biden, a good guy who’ll protect you from the bad.

Republicans made Donald Trump the good-guy protagonist in this week’s television drama. It was to be expected that a seasoned reality star would pull out all the best hooks of the genre in his party’s nominating convention: surprise appearances, plot twists, and the elevation of ordinary folks to celebrity status. No shock, either, that its nightly episodes brimmed with praise for the president.

More surprising was how much the G.O.P. stuck to the classics. Speaker after speaker appeared behind a podium — sometimes prerecorded, often without a crowd. The red-meat messaging recalled past G.O.P. convention moments: Herbert Hoover decrying the “collectivism” of the New Deal in 1936, Nixon vowing to uphold “law and order” in 1968, Patrick Buchanan’s fiery exhortation to “take back our culture” in 1992.

President Trump also followed his predecessors in leaning into the advantages of incumbency, his convention rarely straying from monumental government settings. In the nineteenth century, incumbent presidents rarely engaged in campaigning and ran so-called Rose Garden campaigns by sticking to their official White House duties.

Trump went further, bringing the campaigning into the White House itself, culminating in his 70-minute acceptance speech on the South Lawn and a fireworks display blazing “Trump” on the National Mall.

With few masks in sight, Trump and his party as thoroughly dismissed the ongoing Covid-19 crisis as Herbert Hoover and the G.O.P. sidestepped mention of the Great Depression at their convention in 1932.

Yet the pandemic persists. So do many other things that pulled voter attention away from the conventions and back to real life. Brutality in Kenosha. The South awash in a hurricane and California on fire. The missed rent checks, the lost jobs, the closed schools.

With all these worries, will Americans even remember these images that flickered into our homes over the last two weeks? What else might happen to change our minds or alter our sense of political possibility? We wait and see, as we always have, one eye on the screen, the other on the future.


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