Presidential candidates usually get a bump in the polls from their conventions for the simple reason that they get a four-day advertisement for them and their parties carried for hours across cable and broadcast news. This year’s “virtual” conventions, however, will lack the cheering crowds, the festive atmosphere, the thundering speeches — and, perhaps, the TV ratings. If things don’t go well, they could have all the passion and excitement of an extended Zoom call, and we don’t yet know what the news coverage will look like.

Nevertheless, even in their pared-down form, they’ll offer an opportunity for each party to answer some basic questions: What do these parties stand for? What is the America they’re trying to create? And where do you, the person sitting at home, fit into that America?

While we know little about the event the GOP will put on, the Democratic convention is taking shape — and it looks very different from the one that nominated Hillary Clinton four years ago. Joe Biden is carefully assembling a campaign and a convention that attempt to be almost all things to almost all people; as long as you don’t like President Trump, the Democrats want you to feel welcome.

To be sure, many of the politicians you’d expect will be speaking: Barack and Michelle Obama, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and so on. But the lineup will also include some Republicans among the ordinary people who will be highlighted. The Post reported Monday:

At the Democratic convention, the list of speakers includes at least nine people from around the country, some of whom Biden had met while campaigning. They will be featured in a mixture of prerecorded segments and speeches, roundtables, and live remarks.
The list includes Rick Telesz, a farmer from Lawrence County, Pa., who voted for Trump in 2016 but, because of the impact the president’s trade policies has had on his family farm, is planning to vote for Biden. Another conservative Republican, Jeff Jeans of Sedona, Ariz., was adamantly opposed to the Affordable Care Act but changed his mind after being diagnosed with throat cancer and obtaining insurance coverage despite that preexisting condition.

In a move that some on the left have criticized, former Ohio governor John Kasich is expected to speak as well. A conservative Republican (among other things, he’s one of the most fervent opponents of abortion rights you’ll find), Kasich would presumably explain to those in his party why you can be a Republican in good standing and still support a Democrat for president, maybe just this once.

While there were Republicans who opposed Trump four years ago, they were not highlighted at the 2016 Democratic convention to this degree. There were a couple of Republicans who spoke, but they were hardly national figures; one was a former mid-ranking Reagan administration official and another was a co-founder of Republican Women for Hillary. The only prominent non-Democrat given a major speaking slot was Mike Bloomberg, who at the time was an independent.

More importantly, the 2016 Democratic convention was about nothing so much as the Democratic Party’s diversity. As Clinton’s slogan had it, the country was “Stronger Together,” and the convention highlighted the fact that Democrats are the party of women, of Blacks, of Latinos, of LGBT Americans and Native Americans and Asian Americans and immigrants and all the different kinds of people who make up our country. In contrast to the rage and resentment of Trump’s convention, it was joyous and celebratory, as one speaker after another told the story of an America getting past its divisions as it created a future of unity.

As a liberal committed to a diverse American future, I found it inspiring, and I’m sure many others did as well. But what I didn’t appreciate at the time was how it may have also worked to Trump’s advantage, reinforcing the conviction held by many of his supporters that America was changing in ways they didn’t like. To them, all that diversity on display made the election of a xenophobic bigot who wanted to kick out immigrants and build walls around the country all the more urgent, so history could be unwound and America made “great” again.

Today, Biden isn’t rejecting the vision of a diverse America, nor is he trying to convince Trump’s ardent fans of anything. But he is intentionally carving a space for Republicans to try to give them a “permission structure” to vote for him.

For that to happen, Republicans need to see people like them who are doing what they’re being asked to do. The message doesn’t even have to be about Biden beyond the assertion that he’s an okay guy whom you don’t have to fear. It can be enough to say that voting for him — even if it’s only because you’re fed up with Trump — doesn’t threaten your identity as a Republican or a conservative.

Meanwhile, Trump’s convention is sure to feature the themes his campaign has been emphasizing recently — that Biden is a puppet of the “radical left” whose election will cause America to descend into violence and chaos, leaving us to huddle in caves as we fend off the cannibal hordes who rove the land. This picture of Biden as a destroyer of civilization has not proved persuasive so far, but Republicans seem to be sticking with it. The GOP convention will probably be as dark and bitter as the one four years ago, because Trump is convinced that mobilizing anger and fear is the only way for him to win.

Convention bounces have gotten smaller in recent years, probably because polarization has left fewer voters unsure of which party they support and susceptible to persuasion by a four-day extravaganza of speeches and balloon drops. But they should still be worth watching, if nothing else to see whether Biden can tell that complicated story that will keep the Democratic base energized and lure a few skittish Republicans to his side. And Trump’s convention? It depends on whether you like horror shows.

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