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A Different Presidential Campaign Trail in 2020

Amid Covid-19, Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro considers what the loss of campaign rituals means for American democracy.

May 27, 2020
A Different Presidential Campaign Trail in 2020
Win McNamee/Getty

The political conventions are in jeopardy, Joe Biden is confined to his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and Donald Trump is thwarted in his hopes of resuming his raucous rallies. As a result, the 2020 presidential campaign has become more virtual than real. In fact, this probably will be the most physically static political season since 1896 when William McKinley addressed trainloads of supporters (an estimated 750,000 in total) from his front porch in Canton, Ohio. 

In a world of prognosticators and polls, we are awash in horserace stories about the Trump-Biden contest. But few have grappled with the related questions sparked by Covid-19: what does the loss of so many campaign rituals mean for democracy? Are we merely dealing with the eroding of tradition akin to the disappearance of torchlight parades? Or is something more substantial being lost because of the campaign limitations imposed by the virus?

Writing these words transports me back to the Sunday before the 1960 election when John Kennedy spoke to more than 50,000 people at the train station in Bridgeport, Connecticut. As a 13-year-old, I was thrilled to be part of the campaign excitement as I waved a sign (hand-lettered by local Democrats) forecasting Richard Nixon’s return to his West Coast roots: “California Here He Comes.”

Ever since then — especially once I became a political reporter — I have been a sucker for campaign rallies. I recall the 8,000 half-frozen people waiting for Bill Clinton at the Albuquerque airport at 3:30 in the morning on Election Day 1992. And I can see in my mind’s eye the more than 35,000 Hoosiers filling American Legion Mall in downtown Indianapolis in late October 2008, signaling that Barack Obama would be the first Democrat to carry Indiana since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Objectively, I know that crowd size can be a deceptive indicator. But on an emotional level, I can understand why Mitt Romney refused to believe that he was doomed to defeat in 2012 since his campaign rallies were so large and enthusiastic to the end.

But what precisely would we as a people lose if this were a year without mass political rallies?

In terms of substance, very little. Rally speeches (and I have heard hundreds in my four decades covering politics) tend to string together applause lines that the candidate has been using for months with a few nuggets added to make news that day. Of course, rallies stoke the enthusiasm of partisans, which normally increases civic engagement. But the roar of the crowd neither inspires nuance nor clarifies the stakes in an election. 

However, the probable loss of traditional political conventions in 2020 raises more complex questions. Although it is often forgotten amid the scripted television extravaganzas of recent decades, conventions at their heart are supposed to be decision-making bodies. In 1924, for example, Democratic delegates sweltered through 103 ballots in New York before they tapped John Davis as the party’s sacrificial nominee against the popular Calvin Coolidge.

Even though opposition to Trump’s renomination quickly fizzled and Biden is now the de facto Democratic nominee, a virtual convention by its very nature muzzles dissent. Booing is difficult on Zoom. And, more seriously, the enthusiasm for hardcore Bernie Sanders delegates to launch a platform fight over, say, Medicare for All would almost certainly be tempered by the inability to gather together in one spot.

There is also the crucial question of whether the broadcast networks would lavish an hour a night of primetime coverage on a virtual convention. Even before the virus, the commitment by the broadcast networks to convention coverage had been fast approaching the vanishing point. What a contrast to the gavel-to-gavel convention coverage of the 20th century, which the networks used to showcase the stars of its news division like Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.  

A virtual convention may provide the networks with the excuse they craved to leave the entire event to cable. What matters are ratings and advertising, even if the virtual 2020 convention features the same speakers that would have otherwise appeared on stage in Milwaukee (Democrats) and Charlotte (Republicans).

Such an abandonment of coverage would be unfortunate, since the four days of convention oratory (sometimes bombastic, sometimes compelling) offer a crash course in the themes that each party will emphasize in the fall campaign. But in a TV era dominated by the rise of streaming services like Netflix, it might be impossible in any case to force apathetic voters to watch political coverage.

The most grievous loss to democracy from the virus has nothing to do with campaign rallies and primetime TV programming. Instead, it is the old-fashioned door knock — volunteers trying to win votes and increase turnout in their neighborhoods for their favored presidential candidate. Such personal canvassing is obviously apt to be rare because of the fear of infection and the prudent need to wear masks.

Partly as a result, Covid-19 will prompt both campaigns to spend even more money than usual on TV and online advertising in a desperate effort to reach the homebound. It doesn’t matter if the effects of TV spots are fleeting at best (see Bloomberg, Michael). For campaign consultants in both parties trying to navigate a strange environment, massive ad spending becomes just about the only game in town.

Anything that drives up the cost of a presidential campaign puts even more pressure on fundraising. And while there is not a one-to-one correlation, a case can be made that, as a result, both parties will depend even more than usual on wealthy donors and super PACs. It is sad that the worst pandemic in a century will end up undermining humble and inexpensive rituals like campaign rallies and door-knocking.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.