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Why the Virtual DNC, RNC Are (Probably) One-Time Only

”Conventions are about much more even than what we see and what the viewer sees,“ CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang says

The Democratic and Republican National Conventions that closed out August shattered norms during a year when little has remained business-as-usual during the pandemic. TheWrap spoke with CBS News’ White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, political correspondent Ed O’Keefe and political director Caitlin Conant about the highly unusual two weeks of conventions, what was noticeably absent from the sleek productions and why virtual conventions aren’t likely to be the norm.

This is the first of a two-part Q&A with Jiang, O’Keefe and Conant. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve been thinking of how we want to reflect on these past two weeks of rather, and I hate this word, but unprecedented conventions. Obviously, because of the pandemic, both of them were, for the most part, virtual. And then for the RNC, there’s [also been] a lot of chatter about what it means for so much political campaigning to be happening directly on government grounds. What do you think this means for the future of political conventions when we’ve seen, for the past two weeks, things just completely different than anything we’ve seen before?

Jiang: Both of these campaigns had no choice. They had to quickly figure out how they were going to connect with voters in a way that was still authentic and effective and delivered their messages, even though they couldn’t do that in a typical way. But I think moving forward, I can’t imagine that given the choice, they would prefer a virtual convention. So I do think this is unprecedented. I think that you’re right to use that word. But I don’t think that it will reshape conventions as we know it, just because conventions are about much more even than what we see and what the viewer sees. There’s a lot of politicking that happens, there’s a lot of planning for the future, there’s a lot of in-person contact that really makes a big difference. While they had no choice but to find ways to try to capture these interactions and try to get creative, certainly for their purposes and for their party, having that time to meet in person is ideal.

Conant: None of us have a crystal ball, obviously. But one thing that was just notable, and I think all three of us would say having been at conventions in the past and covered them, is what was missing.

I look at the Republican convention, and who knows what’s going to happen in the next presidential cycle, but there was talk of, you know, would [Mike] Pompeo or Mike Pence or Nikki Haley — would any of them run in 2024? And typically, if you’re in person at a convention, they’re meeting with delegates, and reporters can see the reception and who gets a lot of buzz after their speech, and they’d be doing probably off-the-record briefings with us to get to know the national press corp, so I think a lot of that was missing. And you can’t really replicate that when it’s virtual.

O’Keefe: The other thing to keep in mind: fundraising. Both parties had to forgo a lot of the fundraising that would go on before, during and after these events, every day, for their various campaign committees. That is part of why they will resume somewhat similar to what they were in the past, probably because there is that big element.

But I think that given the reviews for certain parts of these conventions, we are very likely to see some kind of virtual roll call done again by Democrats, at least because it was so well received. I’d love to see, just even for the sake of history, another reunion of vanquished rivals, like they did at the Democratic Convention on the last night by having [seven] of them get together and sort of commiserate about the election. I felt that was really kind of a testament to the fact that a lot of them actually did become personally closer to each other, but also a bold move by the party to show that bygones be bygones. They were united.

But also for those of us who live and breathe this stuff, this is kind of an awesome representation, or reminder, of what was going on for the past year. And in 2024 and beyond, it’d be great if both parties required that people get together and hold a reunion show with Andy Cohen or something.

What’s your sense of how effective these conventions were in communicating with people who wouldn’t usually be so attuned to what’s happening?

O’Keefe: I don’t think we know that fully yet. I’ve asked the Biden campaign and the DNC, ‘How are you measuring success?’ and they’ve touted various numbers, mostly streaming and ratings and whatnot. But I also suspect that part of what they were looking for is what of their content they were creating — because that’s essentially what they were doing — was going to have stick-to-itiveness and still be talked about a few days later. And I think the roll call, Michelle Obama’s speech, a few other moments are sort of persisting.

Conant: Both campaigns, leading into it, embraced the fact that they were going to try and focus on more average Americans as part of their content as well and not just have it be on all politicians.

Jiang: And because they had to, they really considered the production aspect, and so you saw these very highly produced pieces that were really thoughtful about how they could engage the viewer because now they understand that the viewer was watching from home or on their phone, and so the audience matters.

I can tell you that from President Trump’s side, they wanted to portray him in a new way, in a way that they believe people have not seen before. And that’s why you saw him have these intimate conversations with frontline workers, that’s why you saw him interacting with people who are trying to make it through the day and try to show that he has this warm, empathetic side that people don’t see. And because they had the advantage of production, and because the candidate, in particular, is very savvy about the media, I think that worked to their advantage. Now, whether it actually resonated with people is to be determined, but from their perspective, they believe they were successful in crafting this portrait of the president that they could produce ahead of time.

With some of those intimate conversations Trump had with frontline workers also came the concern of, again, his use of government property or the featuring of government officials in their government capacities working in this political campaign sphere, and the Hatch Act came up a lot. How likely are there to be consequences for this kind of behavior?

Jiang: I think it’s important to remember that there is an Office of Special Counsel that’s designated to flag these violations, and when it came to last [Thursday] night, which was sort of the exclamation point of all of it, having what was essentially a campaign rally on the White House South Lawn, that was not deemed illegal.

I think we just have to tread carefully because the mechanisms are in place to make these legal determinations, and certainly, the White House and the campaign took extensive measures, to their point that they’ve made all week, is that they have their legal teams in place. They certainly checked this out and made sure that this was all going to be kosher. Now, that said, Democrats will continue their investigation. They’re making their case that this was in violation of the Hatch Act.

Read part two of TheWrap’s conversation with Jiang, O’Keefe and Conant here.