Slick, solid and easily digested but will Democrats’ low energy live-stream convention help Joe Biden beat Donald Trump?

Perhaps, writes Andrew Buncombe, party needs to emulate professional soccer and use canned applause

Tuesday 18 August 2020 18:07 BST
Joe Biden hosts a panel talk during the Democratic National Convention on 17 August, 2020
Joe Biden hosts a panel talk during the Democratic National Convention on 17 August, 2020 (Reuters)

Four years ago, on the opening night of the Democratic national convention, Bernie Sanders delivered a soaring piece of rhetoric in which he urged his supporters to vote for the candidate who had defeated him.

The audience packed into Wells Fargo Centre in Philadelphia leapt to their feet, emotions running high, as the senator declared: “We have begun a political revolution to transform America and that revolution – our revolution – continues.”

Four years on, admittedly barely looking any older, Sanders again had to urge his fans to back a candidate other than himself, albeit Joe Biden rather than Hillary Clinton, whom many of his supporters detested. “This election is the most important in the modern history of this country,” he said. “The future of our democracy is at stake.”

Yet this time it sounded flat, muted. And it was not just Bernie Sanders. Michelle Obama, Monday evening’s keynote speaker, who we were told would deliver the most rousing address of her life, felt equally low-key.

Of course, it was not their fault. Forced by the coronavirus pandemic to deliver live-streamed speeches from the safety of their homes to Americans sitting in theirs, rather than in a noisy arena, the addresses lacked the input of live applause and emotion.

Wisconsin congresswoman Gwen Moore addresses the convention on Monday
Wisconsin congresswoman Gwen Moore addresses the convention on Monday (AP)

They were slick, solid and easily digested, but they lacked the back of and forth of speaking to a live audience, the interactions and smiles and shouts and screams. In short, they lacked an actual convention.

Politicians are not the only profession thus struggling in these times of lockdown and distance. Sportswomen and men seem to respond better to a live spectators.

And for the spectators, which all of us were tonight, sports channels have found many people prefer to watch their teams play with a canned soundtrack of applause. They know it is not people cheering the action they are witnessing at that precise moment, but it is better than the eerie, empty quiet.

Would the Democratic Party have been wise to emulate the Premier League, or Major League Soccer, and match the speeches of Sanders and Obama with the applause they earned four years ago? Would people have preferred to have been roused and excited to think people were cheering along with them?

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None of this is easy of course. Trump loyalists, such as his son Eric, may have been quick to mock the Democrats’ efforts, but they have to hold their own convention next week. It is hard to imagine a live-streamed Mike Huckabee will be more gripping than Bernie Sanders, or Michelle Obama. Indeed, he may be less thrilling by some measure.

But the Democrats have a problem in that their candidate Joe Biden is not a high octane speaker to start with. There was a time when he could lift a roof, and he has done so often.

But that is not the Joe Biden of today. Now, aged 77, that senior citizen status being underscored by the video message delivered by his grandchildren, Biden is emotional and authentic, but he no longer has the oratorical power he once had. When he accepts the nomination on Thursday night, the speech will no doubt be earnest, but will it rally voters in the way he hopes it will?

A big part of the problem is that every four years, America, and the rest of the world, has been accustomed to blockbuster convention scenes with flags and balloons and confetti pouring from the roof. Standing in such a room, it is hard not to feel moved.

But because of the coronavirus, the conventions have been reduced to a series of live-streamed speeches. There is no music, no fanfare. Or only on pre-produced videos, which are slick, but still not the real thing. Rather, it more resembles the succession of Zoom calls, those of us fortunate enough still to have jobs, and fortunate enough to work remotely, use to go about our work.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps it matters a lot. On the eve of the convention, polls showed Biden’s national lead over Donald Trump slipping from double digits to just four points.

In up to 15 battleground states, his lead is barely a point over that of the president.

And Democrats can be sure, that when Trump speaks next week, either in person, or when he accepts the nomination from the White House, he will do so in a way that captures the headlines and seeks to rob Joe Biden of his.

As such, every vote will count come November. Democrats need to realise that, unless they want to watch Trump spend another four years in the White House.

None of them will be cheering that.

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