The decision to push back the 2020 Democratic National Convention by one month leaves a glimmer of hope that Milwaukee can still bask in the spotlight of the highly anticipated event that the city fought so aggressively to secure but which has been thrown into flux due the COVID-19 pandemic, political experts say.
The convention, originally scheduled for July 13-16, has been moved to the week of Aug. 17, organizers announced on Thursday.
“My first reaction was, why not? You might as well, at least from a local perspective,” said Thomas Holbrook, distinguished professor of political science at UW-Milwaukee. “It could very well be that in a month and half we realize that even the middle of August isn’t going to work, but I think it’s important to continue on with planning while assuming maybe it will work. There are so many people with so much at stake locally. I’m not even talking about Democrats vs. Republicans. There are thousands and thousands of local people who are affected by this.”
The Democratic National Convention Committee has confirmed that Fiserv Forum, the Downtown arena where the convention is scheduled to be held, is available in August, as is the Wisconsin Center District and adequate hotel accommodations in Milwaukee and the surrounding area.
However, the uncertainty created by the coronavirus outbreak in the United States likely means the convention won’t be carried out on the scale that had been planned, Holbrook said.
The DNC, according to earlier projections, was to attract at least 50,000 visitors to the Milwaukee area and generate an economic impact of $200 million for the region until the crippling pandemic struck.
“It almost certainly will still mean a scaling back of the event, both in terms of funding and because it’s not likely that you’ll be able to convince tens of thousands of people to come to Milwaukee and gather in a small place in just a few months,” Holbrook said.
The convention planning team will now use the coming weeks to further explore all options to ensure nominating the next Democratic candidate to be president of the United States is done without unnecessary risk to public health. These options range from adjusting the convention’s format to crowd size and schedule.
“I think this is the least disruptive solution at this point,” said Julia Azari, associate professor and assistant chair in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. “In terms of excitement and relevance and generating some political narrative in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, this might actually improve the chances for that because people will have had so few opportunities by that point to do things in person. The novelty value has gone up, if you are taking a more hopeful vision.”
Even if the pandemic subsides, the change in the dates of the convention could result in attendance levels that are below original projections, Azari agreed.
“One possibility will be that it will be more sparsely attended because of the logistics and that will make it less intense and less exciting of an event,” she said. “On the other hand, I think it will be more of an excitement generator than had the convention been virtual. I feel like we are just learning how to do public life virtually in ways that are effective and secure. Trying to do that on a mass scale in July would have been complicated.”
Until it becomes clear as to when it will be safe again for mass gatherings, plans remain subject to change, Azari warned.
“Safe to say that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Azari said, though she noted that current forecasts put the expected peak of deaths from the COVID-19 outbreak in late April. “Gathering people from a lot of places seems like it will still have a lot of risks.”
There are also wide-ranging political ramifications that stem from pushing the DNC back by one month.
“Money raised for the primary campaign can be spent up until the general election, but general election money can’t be spent until the nomination has been officially secured,” Holbrook explained.
A full-scale convention also would provide a crucial opportunity for the Democratic Party and its nominee, which − barring a stunning comeback from Sen. Bernie Sanders − will be former Vice President Joe Biden, to dominate the news cycle for at least four consecutive days, with attention focused intensely on the action in Milwaukee.
“It’s really an opportunity to make your case, try out some messages and lay the groundwork for the fall campaign,” Holbrook said. “Biden is fairly well known but has been out of government for four years.”
The five-week delay in the convention is consistent with the movement that has occurred on the state level in the wake of the outbreak, political scientist Josh Putnam noted on his website. Putnam, who specializes in delegate selection rules, presidential campaigns and elections, claimed that of the states that have shifted delegate selection events back have done so by an average almost 38 days. The nearly equivalent move by the national convention will allow those states to complete their delegate selection in a timely and efficient manner ahead of convention’s new date.
What remains unclear, according to Putnam, is how the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee will handle states that have held their primaries and caucuses beyond the June 9 deadline established under DNC rules. Those rules call for a 50 percent reduction in a state’s delegation as a penalty.
“But the convention’s move signals even more that the party is more likely than not to grant some latitude to state parties on this front,” he wrote.
With postponement, the DNC now will be held just one week before the Republican National Convention takes place in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It’s really hard to say what the net impact will be as far as who this favors,” Holbrook said. “My gut reaction is that it’s usually more important for a challenging party to state its case than it is for the incumbent party.”
The COVID-19 outbreak has created unprecedented challenges for DNC organizers. Hurricane Isaac delayed the start of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, in 2012, but the rest of the convention played out as planned.
“That wasn’t a real big deal,” Holbrook said. “This, on the other hand, has really disrupted the campaign. The presidential campaign is virtually invisible right now. We have a primary coming up on Tuesday (in Wisconsin) and there is nothing happening. Part of that is that Biden seems to have sewn things up, but absent the COVID-19 crisis, I think you’d see a lot more heat on the Democratic presidential side right now.”