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5 Questions Ahead Of The Democratic National Convention

Joe Biden is set to officially be named the Democratic presidential nominee this week.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Joe Biden is set to officially be named the Democratic presidential nominee this week.

The Democratic National Convention kicks off Monday night and will take place from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET each evening through Thursday, when it will end with the official selection of former Vice President Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee.

This convention will look and feel different from past years because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Democratic event was supposed to take place in person in Milwaukee before the coronavirus hit, but now it's going to take place all virtually and be a big TV production with speakers and guests located across the country.

It's a first to have a convention done all virtually, and there are political goals the Biden campaign is looking to achieve that are complicated by the format.

There are a host of questions about how the week will go. Here are five:

1. Do the Democrats pull off the high-wire TV production act?

Democrats have had a head start on planning for a virtual convention, and they are confident that gives them an advantage on the quality of the program they will put out, compared with the Republicans the following week. And Democrats probably need it, since they are trying to highlight a difference in competence between Biden and President Trump, especially as it relates to the coronavirus.

Remember that Trump made fun of Democrats, who began shifting toward a virtual event as the coronavirus started to become widespread. Trump, upset with North Carolina for not being able to guarantee allowing an in-person convention by the end of August, defected to Jacksonville, Fla. But then when cases spiked in Florida, Trump did an about-face and called it off. That left the Republicans scrambling. That said, Trump is a former reality TV star and the GOP and Trump campaign have built-in non-mainstream TV production operations they use and could stand up.

The Biden campaign says speeches are going to be shorter, and there will be fewer speakers than in past years. A campaign official said it looked at the few major TV events that have taken place since the coronavirus swept the country, including LeBron James' Graduate Together event, Global Citizen's One World: Together at Home show done in coordination with the World Health Organization, and the NFL Draft. Some of those shows featured segments that were all pretaped, some were live, and some a mix. This Democratic convention is going to be a "hybrid," the official said, with people all across the country.

"You don't need a floor pass to come into this year's convention," the official said.

We'll see if they can pull it off.

2. Will there be a convention bump?

Presuming they pull off the atmospherics, there are political goals for the candidates, too. One of those goals is to come out ahead after both conventions are done. A convention, after all, is one of the only opportunities for a candidate to speak directly to a broad audience of Americans — along with the debates. And conventions are the only time candidates get this much time to speak to Americans in a scripted and controlled way to lay out their vision for the country.

"Bumps" in presidential polling sometimes recede and sometimes stick, depending on how the message is driven home over the next month. In recent cycles, given hyperpartisanship in the country, those bumps have gotten smaller.

For Biden, he's ahead in the polls. And Democratic strategists think that with polarization being what it is that Biden might be at or near a ceiling. He has, after all, been polling consistently at 50% or more over the past several months.

So for Biden, the goal at the end of the convention is to lock in the people who currently say they're behind him and to appeal to new ones who might not have been as fired up for Biden but who the campaign feels should be their voters.

3. Do Democrats maintain unity?

The 2016 convention in Philadelphia was not a strong show of unity from Democrats. Progressives, upset that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had lost the nomination and who felt Hillary Clinton was too much of a centrist, disrupted the proceedings and voiced their irritation with the process and the nominee. (Remember "No TPP"?)

But 2020 is a different year. Biden and Sanders clearly have a warmer relationship than Sanders and Clinton; Biden has worked with Sanders on process and policy, forming task forces together; and most importantly, Trump has been president for the last 3 1/2 years. Progressives see Trump as far more of a clear and present danger now than they did in 2016.

At the same time, Democrats do have some hurdles to overcome on the progressive-moderate unity front. There is some irritation among activists that as of Sunday afternoon there were no Muslim speakers featured and relatively few Latinos. What's more, the Biden campaign is featuring a Republican on Monday, John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio.

Sanders will be speaking Monday night as well, and when he was asked on CNN Sunday about sharing the stage with Kasich, Sanders said that the most important thing was defeating Trump, and then after Biden is elected to try and push as much of a progressive agenda as possible.

4. Do Democrats close the ticket enthusiasm gap with Trump?

Another big goal for the Biden-Harris ticket is to try and close the enthusiasm gap with Trump on whether people are fired up to vote for this ticket, rather than simply voting against Trump. Now, voting against Trump certainly may be enough — those who oppose Trump are highly motivated, and they are a sizable share of the electorate.

But to go into the final stretch of the campaign firing on all cylinders, the Biden campaign would certainly prefer to raise that enthusiasm level for their candidate. That's why you can expect a healthy dose of Biden's biography to be featured, including the roots of his empathy and dealing with tragedy, introducing him to voters, some of whom, particularly young ones, might not be fully aware.

And, of course, there's Biden's running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris. The Biden campaign said the day she was announced as his vice presidential choice, it saw its single-biggest one-day fundraising of the campaign. Certainly, the Biden camp hopes to come out with an enthusiasm bump, if nothing else, out of the next four days.

5. How is the argument about the economy framed?

For as many advantages as Biden currently has, including sizable margins on who's best to handle the pandemic and race relations, Trump continues to have an advantage on the economy.

The latest NBC/WSJ poll, out Sunday, gave Trump a 10-point advantage on the question. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pollgave him 2-point margin. Either way, it's Trump's one advantage.

So it will be interesting to see how Democrats decide to frame the argument on the economy for a large viewing audience. Last week, after she was announced as Biden's running mate, Harris may have been test-driving some of the potential messaging.

"He inherited the longest economic expansion in history from Barack Obama and Joe Biden," Harris said of Trump. "And then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground. Because of Trump's failures of leadership, our economy has taken one of the biggest hits out of all the major industrialized nations with an unemployment rate that has tripled as of today."

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.