Republicans and Democrats both face tough decisions related to planning summer political conventions in the era of COVID-19  – and at this point each party is taking an approach that largely reinforces the broader narrative each supports related to the pandemic, says a Virginia Tech expert.

The Republican convention is planned for Charlotte and the Democrats plan to meet Milwaukee. But in the era of COVID-19 and concerns about large gatherings, both parties face significant challenges, said Virginia Tech political scientist Karen Hult.

“This year, given President Trump’s current insistence on having a traditional convention -- complete with large, roaring crowds, the Republicans also confront clear logistical challenges, likely resistance from some groups in the ultimate host community, and criticism from numerous quarters in the U.S. and around the world,” said Hult.    

Democrats, meanwhile have pushed their July convention in Milwaukee back a month – scheduled now for August 17th.

“Although the DNC apparently hopes to convene in person, it also has left itself a good deal of flexibility about adapting those arrangements to existing conditions,” she said. “Such a response, of course, is consistent with the broader Democratic narrative that criticizes the administration’s handling of the pandemic and reinforces the party’s and prospective candidate Biden’s appeal to many key constituencies.”

Meanwhile, most assume that even if local safety and health officials approve, in-person conventions would likely include extraordinary precautions in the way of social distancing.  Those measures would no doubt impact the look and feel of a less-than-full to capacity conventional hall.

“Presumably, this is a concern for planners of both conventions,” said Hult. “President Trump appears particularly focused on this sort of valid TV-production concern. Other kinds of visuals, loud music, larger and more loosely assembled crowds in outside settings and smaller group activities would seem to be among possible supplements or replacements.”

Hult, the chair of the Center for Public Administration & Policy in Virginia Tech’s School of Public & International Affairs says suspense over the presidential nominee has been relatively rare leading into party conventions since at least the 1950s.

“This year, since most estimates put the percentage of undecided voters at less than 5% nationally, the conventions -- or their substitutes -- likely will mostly be about reinforcing and mobilizing or demobilizing voters. At least in the past, so-called convention ‘bounces’ in support for a candidate have both varied in magnitude and been short-lasting.”

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