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The Convention Question

Get ready: The biggest political issue of the summer may be the status of the Republican National Convention.

This week Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the DNC, suggested that is it unlikely that the Democratic National Convention, already delayed, will be held in Milwaukee in its usual format. This is one of those pandemic-era news items that is at once shocking and entirely predictable. Who, before last month, could have imagined a presidential campaign without the ostentatious conventions projecting images of grinning candidates playing to adoring crowds into homes across the country? But who, today, could imagine a party risking epidemic infection of thousands of its most important operatives, not to mention many thousands of local workers and residents of a battleground state, leading into the crucial autumn campaign window?

Barring a surprising warm-weather retreat by the novel coronavirus, it is probable that almost every aspect of the presidential campaign will look different this fall. Massive campaign rallies? Cheering crowds at debates? Seemingly impossible. Even grassroots GOTV campaigns will need to be adjusted. And it’s only a matter of time before video emerges of masked individuals carefully donning gloves and applying disinfectant before stealing an opponent’s lawn signs.

There is only one real factor with the potential to perpetuate large campaign events this fall: President Trump.

It does not take much insight to suggest that President Trump’s favorite part of his job is holding large rallies in front of adoring crowds. It was a staple of his campaign in 2016, and it has remained a regular feature of his presidency right up until the week before most of the country began to enact significant changes in response to the pandemic. His most recent rally was held on March 2 in Charlotte, which by coincidence is scheduled to host the Republican National Convention from August 24 to 27.

It is that event that could raise the most interesting question as the mid-game of the electoral chess match launches at the end of summer. Should COVID-19 remain the threat most predict it to be throughout the summer, a re-format of the Democratic Convention will naturally evolve from the speculated possibility it is today to an inevitable development in June. However, President Trump may face a more difficult choice with regard to his convention and campaign schedule.

President Trump has not been shy about his desire for the country to “re-open” as quickly as possible. He has stated his wish to see “fans back in the arenas” of major sporting events. His desire to put his biggest fans, the members of his party, into the Spectrum Center in Charlotte in August will be powerful. His support of returning the country back to normal would almost require it.

But the risks, both epidemiological and political, would be significant. The most basic risk, of course, is the possibility of thousands of people descending upon Charlotte and spreading the novel coronavirus both amongst each other and to the citizens of the city. A significant spread within Republican delegates would be bad enough—disabling many of the party’s most important local operatives during a vital period of the national campaign—but a potential outbreak in Charlotte is a major issue that will become politically explosive if the convention isn’t cancelled or reformatted by the end of June.

President Trump won North Carolina in 2016, but it is a swing state governed by a Democrat, Roy Cooper. With the possibility of any large-crowd events taking place this summer rapidly diminishing (events specifically excluded from the President’s own plan to re-open America until phase three, which for most locations is a minimum of six weeks away), Governor Cooper will not be anxious to relax statewide restrictions on assembly for the Republican Convention. If the President suggests, via tweet or off-hand remark at a press conference, that the Convention should go forward unchanged, Governor Cooper will have an open invitation to oppose him publicly.

What could follow would be a high-stakes political showdown in which President Trump would hold almost no winning cards in his hand. Even if he “wins” and holds the convention, any significant outbreak of COVID-19 in Charlotte following the convention would be blamed on him, and even without such an outbreak his effort to hold the convention would likely be extremely unpopular, costing him the state’s 15 electoral votes. Further public rallies would be gambles, as an outbreak attributed to even one of them would be a significant negative story that would shake the confidence of all but the President’s most loyal supporters. Worse, any reports of Trump supporters abandoning campaign events out of fear for their own safety would be a tremendous blow.

A decision to change the convention location or bar delegate attendance could also be damaging to President Trump. It would undermine his argument that the country should be returning to normal. It is hard to argue that states should be running “business as usual” if President Trump’s campaign isn’t willing to run “business as usual.” And, if he were to wait to make this decision until after he were challenged by Governor Cooper, it would be perceived as a sign of weakness and a significant political loss. The later he waits to make a change, the worse such a change would look.

Advisors for both parties are likely to recommend that the conventions this August be heavily modified and de-populated. It seems inevitable that the Biden campaign will quickly agree to re-organize the Democratic National Convention to take place without delegates, and to dare President Trump to follow suit. The question will then rest on whether President Trump listens to advisors that tell him to keep things safe, or whether he plows ahead with his desired Campaign structure.

It will be his first big gamble of the 2020 campaign.

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