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Democrats grapple with virtual versus in-person formats at national convention

The Democratic Party is considering a virtual format for its 2024 Democratic National Convention much like the one held in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent survey conducted by a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame asked the delegates to the 2020 convention how they felt about the virtual format and found that while most of them considered the event a success, a large majority of them would prefer to attend in person to foster unity among party activists.

As the Democratic Party prepares for its 2024 Democratic National Convention, scheduled to take place Aug. 19-22 in Chicago, it faces an important question: Should the convention be a largely virtual event, similar to the one held in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, or a largely in-person event like those held prior to 2020?

Some party leaders favor a virtual format to minimize the disruptive effects of protests likely to occur during the convention. The party has already decided to nominate President Joe Biden with a virtual roll call. But other leaders are skeptical of a virtual approach, favoring a traditional event where face-to-face interactions can foster unity among party activists.

A recent survey conducted by a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame provides important insight into this debate. The survey asked the delegates to the 2020 Democratic convention how they felt about the virtual format, which replaced the traditional coverage of in-person speeches to thousands of delegates with celebrity hosts, remote presentations and professionally produced video content.

The survey found that while most of the 2020 delegates considered the virtual convention a success, a large majority of them would prefer not to repeat it this year. Because many of these respondents are likely to be delegates again in 2024, their opinions suggest how well received and perhaps how successful another virtual convention would be.

Professor Layman has salt-and-pepper colored hair, mustache and beard, and wears a dark blue blazer and tie over a white shirt.
Geoff Layman, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame.

Geoff Layman, professor and chair of Notre Dame’s Department of Political Science, along with his collaborators, John Green of the University of Akron and John Jackson of Southern Illinois University, interviewed 554 respondents (21 percent of the 2,500 Democratic delegates whom they contacted) between July 2023 and March 2024.

In a report on their findings, they indicate that 56 percent of the 2020 delegates viewed the virtual experience in a positive light overall, with 27 percent providing a more negative assessment. For 2024, however, nearly 65 percent prefer a largely in-person event; 31 percent prefer to have a hybrid event with an even balance of virtual and in-person elements; and just 4 percent would be happy with a largely virtual event.

Democratic delegates’ views were mixed on specific facets of the 2020 virtual convention. For example, a clear majority of delegates had positive views on the technical innovations employed in conducting the convention, such as holding the roll call of state delegations from scenic locations in each state (69 percent thought the format was successful while 20 percent did not), and incorporating a greater use of celebrities presiding at convention events (53 percent approved of the tactic and 31 percent were not as impressed).

As far as meeting the traditional goals of national conventions, the majority of respondents said the virtual format was successful in persuading independent and swing voters and for conducting regular party business such as approving the platform and rules. The delegates believed the virtual format was less successful when it came to building a strong and cohesive organization to carry out the general election campaign and in generating enthusiasm and excitement among grassroots activists and key constituencies.

Layman believes that the limitations of a virtual convention for building party cohesion and grassroots excitement are the main reasons the 2020 delegates want an in-person 2024 convention. “These delegates are political activists and they like politics,” he said. “And while the 2020 convention was effective in terms of helping them achieve the ultimate goal — winning the election — it didn’t have the side benefits for them of the personal interactions and networking with other political activists.

“Discussing how best to mobilize voters, especially the ones sitting on the fence, and teaming up across counties, states or congressional districts to coordinate activities, training sessions and resources to help local party officials and activists campaign effectively — these are the types of in-person things that go on at the convention and that were missing in 2020.”

According to the report, displeasure with the 2020 virtual convention is concentrated among delegates who are younger than 40 years old and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 nomination campaign. Dissenters of 2020’s virtual format also report weaker levels of support for the Democratic Party organization and stronger support for issue and ideological groups.

Overall, the delegates reported giving top priority to six issues: protecting democracy from domestic extremists, reducing economic inequality, fighting climate change, and protecting abortion, minority and LGBTQ+ rights.

“I think our survey results should make Democratic Party officials who are thinking about moving to a virtual convention take pause, because while their activists were pleased with how it worked in 2020, they don’t want to go back to that. And you’ve got to keep them happy, enthusiastic, supportive and mobilized because the elections are going to be very close this year.”

A key reason for some Democratic leaders preferring to host the convention virtually is the potential for Israel-Palestine protests, which are reminiscent of the anti-Vietnam protests that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention — also held in Chicago.

But, according to Layman, this year represents a different time, a different war and vastly different local leadership. “The specter of the 1968 convention hangs over this a little bit since the last time we had these sorts of major campus protests against a sitting Democratic president and his foreign policy was in 1968,” Layman explained.

“But the context was completely different in 1968. We were many years into a very unpopular war with people in their 20s getting drafted into the military, and we had an old-style political machine running Chicago with a more aggressive police department confronting protesters. I think the probability of the Democrats having a repeat of 1968 is very low.”

If the convention moves to a hybrid production, the plan would incorporate in-person speeches from Biden and key Democrats as well as pre-recorded testimonials and videos taped from various parts of the country — with the intention of obtaining maximum television and internet coverage while minimizing contentious moments ripe for demonstrators to distract viewers and attendees.

Layman said the Democratic Party may choose to use more rehearsed and professionally produced content, which would give the party more opportunity to manage the narrative. “The more airtime you can control, the better it is for the party,” Layman said.

As the Democrats finalize plans for their 2024 convention format, Layman said these findings matter in the big picture. “I think our survey results should make Democratic Party officials who are thinking about moving to a virtual convention take pause, because while their activists were pleased with how it worked in 2020, they don’t want to go back to that,” he said.

“And you’ve got to keep them happy, enthusiastic, supportive and mobilized because the elections are going to be very close this year.”

Contact: Tracy DeStazio, associate director of media relations, 574-631-9958 or tdestazi@nd.edu

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