“You should see a cue to unmute yourself.”
Stars stumping for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden: They’re just like us! At this year’s convention, that means attending “parties” that have all the thrill of a mandatory workplace training seminar. Instead of glitzy fundraisers and neighborhood bars, it was login links and video grids. Pro: No aerosolized virus. Con: Let’s be honest, nothing that happens on Zoom is energizing or party-like, and pretending otherwise can be exhausting.
“I apologize for the technical delay,” said Curtis, finally appearing on the screen. “I guarantee you it was a man.”
She was dressed in a crisp white suit in tribute to the suffragists. Instead of a bookcase, she sat in front of a mid-century modern bureau with a vase of pink flowers. Curtis was here to interview New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who broke the ice by holding up a bottle of drinkable Activia yogurt — a product for which Curtis used to be a spokeswoman.
“So I will tell you one thing. They did fire me, and replaced me with Shakira,” Curtis said.
“I’m never drinking that again,” Lujan Grisham said.
“It’s okay,” Curtis said. “It was years ago and I’m over it. But I really am — you know, we’re all trying to figure out how can we come together, because we feel so cleaved by the hatred that is coming out of the White House.”
In another Zoom “preprogramming event,” for Virginia Democrats, guests could entertain themselves by peering into the bedrooms and living rooms of fellow partygoers. And — oh, look, it’s former Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine! Four years ago, the Virginia senator was onstage in Philadelphia, getting some laughs for what could be very generously called an impersonation of Donald Trump. This time, Kaine and his powerful suburban-dad energy were safely contained at home.
“The nation got it wrong but Virginia got it right,” Kaine reassured the Virginia Dems, speaking of the state’s blue turn for him and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He was seated in front of a fireplace in a blue gingham shirt. “But we’re going to make sure the nation gets it right in 2020.”
Political convention watch parties are usually consolation prizes for superfans who couldn’t go to the VIP-haunted on-site shindigs. In 2020, with the pandemic canceling nearly all the action in Milwaukee, delegates who expected to be partying there found themselves sitting on their couches, too.
The positive spin on this was that this year’s convention was more small-D democratic, with the VIPs and attendees confined to the same virtual experience.
“When I decided I was going to run for delegate, and I won it, I was like, this will be amazing! I get to see it all,” said Neil Sroka, a Bernie Sanders delegate from Michigan and communications director for Democracy for America. “Now everyone gets to see it all,” he added, wistfully.
“I feel more connected watching like this,” said Cita Strauss, who attended a Zoom watch party for Democrats who live in Athens, Ohio.
“The drinks are cheaper here,” said Michael Fletcher, at the same party.
It might be hard to picture the scene at a virtual party, especially because there was a range of what constituted one. The official campaign-sponsored watch parties, organized by geography and interest group, were just a live stream and a text-only chat window on the campaign’s website. Some of those groups added a separate, pre-party on Zoom, with celebrity speakers and varying levels of interaction. Other Democratic clubs or groups of delegates hosted their own Zooms with plenty of chatter.
And so, despite all the cancellations and compromises, a mood of good humor seemed to hang over the proceedings — wait, these are the proceedings, right?
“How do I get in to the watch party? I’ve registered for it, but I can’t seem to get in,” wrote one attendee in the Virginia for Biden chat.
“This is the party!” replied a member of the Biden team.
Yes, somehow, this is the party: A small box for chatting with other guests; above that, a larger box encouraging donations; beside that, a live-streamed feed of the convention — which some of the chatters were having trouble hearing, because of a technical issue that had turned the party into a literal echo chamber.
“How do I get the little screen back so I can see comments and chat?” commented one watch-party participant, Heather from Texas.
“Marybeth are u on,” a woman named Bethann wrote to the entire national party, in the style of a blithe reply-all to a mass email.
If the parties were meant to replace the experience of watching in a bar, then the Mission Arizona watch party was the kind of dimly lit dive where no one makes eye contact. The partygoers did not chat much. Most were in dark rooms, their glasses illuminated by only their screens. One Zoom window showed two pairs of disembodied legs, presumably a couple lying down on a bed. Another contained a solo man in a backward baseball cap, who would periodically take a big puff from his vaporizer. No one appeared to be having fun.
The cool neighborhood bar vibe belonged to the Young Delegates Coalition, a group of teenage and 20-something delegates from across the country. On Night 1, they were surprised to log in and find comedian Jaboukie Young-White in the room.
“He asked for a show of hands for those that had to help boomers unmute themselves on Zoom,” said organizer and Florida delegate Joseph Mullen.
On Night 2, they made bingo cards filled with anticipated Democratic convention cliches like “White person speaks Spanish” and “Someone tries to reference a meme.” (For the over-21 crowd this was, obviously, a drinking game.)
“I need ‘Let’s make him a one-term president’ and ‘Big tent party,’ ” called out one delegate.
The downside of a Zoom party is that the crashers, too, can do their thing without leaving their couches. The Grosse Pointe, Mich., Democratic Club’s watch party on Monday night was “Zoom-bombed” by four trolls spewing racial slurs. Sroka, the Michigan delegate who is also on the club’s board, kicked them out quickly.
Trump supporters hit up the comments section of another female-focused YouTube watch party.
“MAGA,” posted a guest named “Funny Boy.” “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
“Make Avocados Grow Again,” posted another attendee. “Marshmallows Are Ginormous Anteaters.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” replied Funny Boy.
Hosting a virtual party is a tough balancing act. “It is definitely difficult to not have your audience there in front of you, especially being a live theater performer,” said Halle Morse, founder of Broadway for Biden, who moderated a Monday watch party and another on Thursday featuring Broadway stars. “Your antenna is up and you’re watching reactions.”
For example: When a Young Americans for Biden watch party brought on Pete Buttigieg to speak, guests immediately knew something was awry. The former presidential candidate made dozens of references to Iowa.
“Pretty sure he is a recording who thinks we’re Iowans,” said one attendee in the chat.
Turns out, he was.
“We accidentally played the wrong video,” said the party’s host, a Biden campaign staff member named Hannah Bristol.
But when celebrities were live and their messages were heartfelt, they could make a virtual watch party feel less like a consolation prize. “Lost” actor Daniel Dae Kim addressed a party held by Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Biden: “Let’s make the statement that Asian Americans are a proud and vital part in the shaping of America.” “Alias” star Jennifer Garner spoke passionately to Wisconsin Women for Biden about early-childhood education. “The Walking Dead” star Danai Gurira told attendees about her support for Biden as a woman of color. “This is a guy in touch with the America I want to live in,” Gurira said.
Curtis popped up at a Wisconsin Women for Biden party, too, this time dressed in black, in front of the same pink flowers, which were beginning to wilt. She did not hold back.
“America has been hijacked by a misogynist pig,” she said. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to bring kindness, humility, empathy, deep —”
And with that, her audio briefly cut out.