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Democrats Weigh Options For Summer Convention


Four years ago, former Vice President Joe Biden took to the stage in Philadelphia facing thousands of Democratic convention delegates who were holding up red and white, lettered signs spelling out Joe.


JOE BIDEN: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you, thank you, thank you. I love you.

MARTIN: That, of course, was back when Democrats were trying to unify around Hillary Clinton as nominee, and it seems a million years ago in more than one way. Now that Joe Biden is himself the Democratic Party's likely nominee, he is unlikely to have that kind of moment at the convention again this year. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Democrats and Republicans are working to figure out how to hold their national party conventions as the list of events forced to adapt - or simply not happen at all - continues to grow because of the coronavirus. No final decisions have been made about what the Democratic conventions will look like.

JOE SOLMONESE: How many people we do that in front of, how many hotel rooms we occupy in the city of Milwaukee, how many buses and what sort of security infrastructure we ultimately end up having based off the uncertainty of the public health environment remains to be seen.

SUMMERS: Joe Solmonese is the chief executive of the Democratic National Convention. He says that even before the coronavirus pandemic forced more discussion about contingency plans, organizers were thinking about how to break the mold.

SOLMONESE: Conventions have historically been a convening of party activists doing the work of the party in a very traditional way to put forward their nominee, and then filming that and broadcasting it to the American people, right? What we have an opportunity to do is to think more about what it is that we want the American people to see and to know.

SUMMERS: This week, Democrats voted to allow delegates to participate even if they do not attend the convention in person. That opens the door for a limited in-person convention or, perhaps, even a virtual meeting in August. Many Democrats have been openly discussing the possibility that this year's convention may look nothing like the multiday affair that happens every four years.

Even Biden himself has suggested that the convention to nominate him may happen digitally. The convention is not just about nominating a candidate. It is also about promoting the party's message. Leah Daughtry served as the CEO of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and again in 2016. She says the success of the event does not hinge on having a live audience in an arena.

LEAH DAUGHTRY: What it does mean is we must create a compelling visual narrative that people can see and be engaged in, sucked into, with the right speakers, the right entertainers and the right visual that will make me come to television and watch night after night.

SUMMERS: Emmy Ruiz is a Democratic strategist who worked on Kamala Harris' presidential campaign. She says that changes to the convention's format could also mean new opportunities for Democrats.

EMMY RUIZ: Being able to do it from my home and having a real active role of participation in a way that is meeting people where they're at literally, I think, is a strength.

SUMMERS: The changes to party conventions are not just happening on a national level. State parties are also being forced to innovate. In Texas, Democrats scrapped their in-person gathering, which usually draws from 10 to 15,000 people. They're moving online instead and expect that even more people will participate. Hannah Roe Beck is the Texas Democrats' convention director.

HANNAH ROE BECK: We're not sacrificing anything in terms of support and training and community building. All of those elements are still going to very much be present.

SUMMERS: This isn't just an issue impacting Democrats. For their part, Republicans have publicly said they are pushing ahead with plans for an in-person convention in Charlotte this summer. Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political reporter for NPR covering demographics and culture. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.