In this edition: The virtual convention gets real, the primaries to watch today, and the voting rights (and postal service) debate gets louder.

My new mission in life is to find that rock formation Maggie Rogers played on, and this is The Trailer.

MILWAUKEE — There is nothing to see here. The arena that Democrats initially reserved for their 2020 convention is empty; the Wisconsin Center, where an AV team is anchoring the “virtual convention,” is open to only staff. Fences and concrete walls circled a few downtown blocks, but there were no lanyard-checking security gates, because there were no delegates to check in. Protests, which had occupied entire city parks at the party's last convention, consisted of a few dozen people with repurposed signs.

“This is one of the only times we'll be together,” said Noel Ray-Ortega, 33, a Milwaukee delegate for Bernie Sanders, at a small antiwar rally on Sunday. “As you know, the DNC was effectively canceled, physically.” 

The debut performance of the new convention went off without a real hitch, its string of Zoom meetings and streamed (or recorded) speeches delivering exactly the message that the party wanted. “Expectations were on the floor, and this soared,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of Wisconsin's Democratic Party, who a few months earlier had been expecting a very different convention. Fights about party unity were moved from the floor to Twitter; speeches that might have gotten heckles or walkouts were delivered with the efficiency of soap commercials.

By Tuesday morning, the party had largely gotten the headlines it wanted from the convention's speeches — some average voters turned into online stars, well-received remarks by Biden supporters who agreed on nothing else, and deep reads of former first lady Michelle Obama's closing remarks. So what ended up mattering?

Michelle Obama going where “politicians” can't. Again and again, and again, the former first lady has renounced any interest in ever running for office. “You know I hate politics,” Obama said halfway through her remarks. What she'd said just seconds earlier was more telling: “I understand that my message won't be heard by some people. We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic convention.”

How many times has a convention speaker said, flat out, that many Americans will tune out what she's saying? Don't spend too much time looking. Obama, who was attacked by Republicans for most of her time in public life, was attacked specifically because she suggested that racism still shaped Americans' political views; she suggested she had not always been “proud” of her country, a quote that resonated with Black Americans but defined White conservative opinion of her for years.

Obama, who had skillfully navigated around those worries for a decade, plowed right through them Monday. She informed voters that there would be an effort to suppress them and keep President Trump in office. (More about that below.) She said flatly that the president was encouraging the worst in Americans and that he was telling a generation of children to accept racism.

“They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe,” Obama said. “They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn't matter what happens to everyone else. And they see what happens when that lack of empathy is ginned up into outright disdain.”

For decades, Democratic politics had been shaped by nervousness about angering and activating a conservative backlash, or a racist one. Obama's speech made a bet that the backlash was simply too weak to win. Democrats made and lost that bet in 2016, but they like their chances now. The protests after George Floyd's killing, and Biden's concurrent jump in the polls, buried many Democratic doubts about the politics of racial justice.

Some policy details, at last. The strongest stretch of Biden's general election campaign, according to polling, was the three weeks he spent rolling out planks of his “Build Back Better” agenda. Some of the details were rehashed from his primary campaign plans; some broader plans were added by a unity task force bringing together Biden and Sanders delegates. In Republican hands, the Biden plans have been shorthanded as a massive tax increase to bring about Sanders-style socialism.

Sanders himself gave one of Monday's more effective speeches, which said essentially that Republicans were right — but, as he always says, voters actually like this stuff when it's spelled out to them. “Joe supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour,” says Sanders, the first direct reference of the convention to a policy Biden has backed for five years. “Joe will also make it easier for workers to join unions, create 12 weeks of paid family leave, fund universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year olds, and make child care affordable for millions of families. Joe will rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and fight the threat of climate change by transitioning us to 100 percent clean electricity over the next 15 years.”

Like Obama, Sanders confidently walked right into the buzz saw of expected Republican attacks, saying Biden would “end private prisons and detention centers, cash bail, and the school-to-prison pipeline.” The Trump campaign is running digital ads that attack Biden's campaign over the decision by some staffers to donate to a bail fund; the argument goes that the money ended up freeing dangerous criminals. 

Cognitive dissonance that works. Within 60 taut minutes, voters watching the convention heard Sanders explain how Biden would move the country left and heard former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican, explain that of course Biden would do no such thing.

“I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat,” Kasich said. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that because I know the measure of the man. It’s reasonable, faithful, respectful, and, you know, no one pushes Joe around.”

Kasich, who remains popular in Ohio, has lost an incalculable amount of Republican cred since 2016. He hasn't gained much from Democrats outside Ohio, either: The run-up to his speech inspired countless reminders of how Democrats fought Kasich on abortion rights and labor rights, then opened the drawbridge for him. 

But the short Republicans-for-Biden portion of Monday's events delivered on their premise: Moderate voters nervous about the far left can handle a Biden administration. Their challenge: A continuing avalanche of ads from Republicans, using clips of Biden tripping over words, to argue that a “diminished” candidate would be led around by the most left-wing members of Congress. 

And speaking of the left!

“Dems in disarray” doesn't work on Zoom. Four years ago, when Sanders controlled more than two-fifths of pledged Democratic delegates, the party's convention was racked by protests and discontent, fading only on the evening of Hillary Clinton's nomination. It was the start of convention week, remember, when the first batch of hacked Democratic emails were released: internal Democratic National Committee messages that found some of the party's irritated staffers complaining about Sanders, his possible vulnerabilities and why he wouldn't wrap up his campaign. Some of that spilled onto TV, and some of it did not, like a mini-march of Sanders delegates from the hall to a media filing center, where campaign surrogates Nina Turner and Susan Sarandon held court.

That would not have been possible in “virtual” conditions, even if the sentiment was there. And the sentiment just isn't. The infighting over the convention's scheduling has focused on whether the party's most prominent left-wing figures, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), will get enough time to speak. The rapid-fire reality of the convention is already mitigating that anger, with the quick switches between speakers and the lack of a live audience preventing any impromptu protests, applause-o-meters or walkouts. And only a few speakers are getting more than a Super Bowl commercial's worth of time: Even Rep. Gwen Moore, Milwaukee's member of Congress, got less speaking time yesterday than she got at conventions of the past.

Even the party's caucuses and state meetings, frequently the sort of places where tensions can boil over, were muted by the limits of nationwide conference-calling. By the end of the first day, Republicans who were watching the convention for gaffes highlighted just one moment — when an organizer at a Young Democrats meeting said attendees could either stand or kneel for the anthem. After the former first lady's address, when a music video from Stephen Stills and Billy Porter included a shot of kneeling football players, the TV coverage had already cut away.

Reading list

What happened last night.

From convention keynoter to #MeToo pariah.

The rise of a Delaware County academic turned political operator.

How a race in Florida could impact Republican politics.

The winning of the left, 2020.

Can eight hours of TV clue voters in to the Biden agenda?

In the states

Three more states will wrap up their primaries today, settling intramural battles inside the Florida Republican Party, testing whether Alaska Democrats have figured out a new strategy to win statewide, and revealing how expanded mail voting will work in incredibly different settings.

It could be a late night. Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern time in most of Florida, with 10 counties of the state's panhandle observing Central time and closing at 8 p.m. (As ever, this newsletter observes East Coast bias, and all times are E.T.) Democrats, breaking with years of voting trends in the state, have both requested and returned mail ballots — they are not called “absentee” in Florida — at a higher rate than Republicans. Among those Republican voters is the president himself, who has waived his warnings about mail voting in the state, arguing that Floridians “get the absentee ballots done extremely professionally," and that governors of most other states can't handle it so well.

One of the night's key races is in Trump's adopted home of Palm Beach County. Six Republicans are competing for the nomination in the 21st District, represented since 2012 by Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel. Hillary Clinton carried the district by 20 points, and national Republicans are not focused on it. That's made a front-runner out of Laura Loomer, a conservative activist whose ambush videos of Democratic politicians, and her characterization of Islam as a “cancer,” have won her a broad far-right following. 

Loomer ran for Congress, at least in part, because she was banned from Twitter, and candidates for public office have special privileges on social media platforms. (When Loomer filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission to restore her Twitter account, she was represented by GOP super-lawyer Charlie Spies.) She's raised nearly $1.2 million, more than Frankel, though the congresswoman has six times as much cash on hand. Loomer's easily outspent her opponents, who include a former exotic dancer and a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory, and she's gotten public support from Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the most popular members of Congress among the president's supporters. The South Florida Sun Sentinel has endorsed another candidate, Christian Acosta, and warned voters that nominating Loomer would be a victory for the politics of “bigotry and conspiracy theories.”

Republican candidates in two open seats have much clearer paths to Congress. In the 3rd District, where Rep. Ted Yoho is retiring and Trump won by 16 points, 10 Republicans are wrestling for the nomination, and 32-year-old Yoho campaign veteran Kat Cammack is running without the congressman's endorsement. (Yoho said in a statement that Cammack was demoted from a top role in his office and “reassigned to the district in Florida for reasons not to be disclosed.”) She's been outspent by James St. George, a doctor who's loaned $600,000 to his campaign, and Judson Sapp, another former Yoho staffer who's invested $500,000 of his money and touted an endorsement from Gaetz. 

The 19th District, in southwest Florida, is even more safely red: The president carried it by 22 points, but Rep. Francis Rooney, an occasional critic of Trump, is retiring, and there are no fair-weather fans of the president in the primary. The Club for Growth has gotten behind Byron Donalds, a state legislator who could be the only Black Republican in the House of Representatives if he prevails here. (Texas Rep. Will Hurd is retiring, and Utah's Burgess Owens is in a tough race to unseat a Democrat.) He's been outspent by two self-funders, surgeon William Figlesthaler and businessman Casey Askar, who've poured millions of dollars into their campaigns.

There are no more open seats in the state, but Rep. Ross Spano, who survived a campaign finance scandal to win in 2018, faces a challenger in the Republican primary for the 15th District. In the 13th District, which former Republican-turned-Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist has held since 2017, the favorites to challenge him are very different Republican women: conservative activist Anna Paulina Luna, who's backed by Gaetz (noticing a pattern?), and former Hill aide Amanda Makki, who has been chastised by Donald Trump Jr. for using his image in advertising. And in the 26th and 27th districts, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and former TV anchor Maria Salazar are battling more clearly pro-Trump candidates, hoping to face the Democrats who flipped the seats two years.

Polls close at 9 p.m. in Wyoming, where the retirement of Sen. Mike Enzi is opening up one of the country's safest Republican seats. (No Democrat has won here since 1970.) The decision of Rep. Liz Cheney to stay in the House left former congresswoman Cynthia M. Lummis as the early front-runner, and she's remained in that position, with some less-experienced challengers running as Washington outsiders. 

Finally, polls will close across Alaska at 1 a.m., and Democrats are trying something almost new: They are backing independents who align with the party in primaries for House and Senate. Alyse Galvin, who came within 7 points of beating Republican Rep. Don Young two years ago, is running again for his seat; Al Gross, a doctor and first-time candidate, is running to challenge first-term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who narrowly won his seat in a fantastic year for the party. Both Galvin and Gross are favored in their primaries, and Alaska Democrats, who have formed alliances with independents to control the state House of Representatives, have grown used to backing candidates who don't share every association with the liberal national party.

Ad watch

Ryan Chamberlin, “Fight.” One of the 10 Republicans jostling for space in Florida's 3rd District primary, Chamberlain's spot begins with him throwing down a newspaper, frustrated by the headlines. “What's worse: Socialists like Pelosi and AOC, or the Republicans that surrender to them?” he asks. Congress, he says, needs “red meat conservatives” to fight the left, a point he punctuates with the presentation of a truly massive steak.

Laura Loomer, “The TRUTH About Laura Loomer.” Before running for Congress, Loomer was arguably best known for being banned from Twitter over comments she made about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “The radical left attacks President Trump and his supporters as Nazis and racists,” a narrator says, explaining that anything negative voters might have heard about Loomer can be just as readily dismissed. 

Club for Growth Action, “Willard.” The conservative group, which ran millions of dollars in ads trying to stop Trump from winning the 2016 Republican nomination, has spent just as much this cycle portraying candidates as would-be traitors if they did not back Trump from the get-go. In ads running in Florida's 19th District, the Club has attacked wealthy first-time candidate Casey Askar for donating to Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign but not to Trump. “Romney marched with Black Lives Matter protesters, and Casey Askar thought Romney should be president,” a narrator says.

Casey Askar, “DC Crap.Askar's been in an ad war with the Club, accusing it of propping up a candidate with far less loyalty to the Republican Party and reminding voters that the group actively opposed Trump in 2016, a fact that has not stopped successful Club ad campaigns in other states. “Never Trump DC buddies are lying to you,” Askar says. “Mitt Romney was a traitor to Donald Trump.”

Jim Bognet, “Good Luck, Portland.” The Republican running in Pennsylvania's 8th District, which voted Democratic until 2016, is airing this spot in Oregon, part of a growing trend for this cycle: national or out-of-state ads that tip off donors to a race they might not have heard of. “If you're a family or business in Portland, Oregon, who's leaning toward leaving for whatever reason, consider northeast PA,” says Bognet, over footage of the city's months-long protests.

Poll watch

Joe Biden: 54%
Donald Trump: 44%

The first of these surveys to narrow the window of voters, from “registered” to “likely,” finds the Democratic nominee in a stronger position than any challenger of an incumbent president heading into a convention since 1992. One factor that had worried Democrats, a gulf in voter enthusiasm, had closed up, too: a 35-point gap between Trump and Biden voters in May is now a 17-point gap, with 48 percent of Biden supporters saying they're excited about their choice. 

Joe Biden: 50% (-5)
Donald Trump: 46% (+5)

Two months ago, a CNN poll that found the president trailing by double digits so angered the Trump campaign that it demanded an apology from the network. This week, the president was happy enough about CNN's results that he told a Minnesota audience that he preferred it to Fox News, whose poll showed him down by seven. The X-factor: CNN's survey found Biden doing better with White voters than any Democratic presidential since the 1990s, yet Trump doing markedly better with non-White voters than he did in 2016. Other pollsters haven't seen that dynamic, at least not in a way that made the results closer.

On the trail

PLEASANT PRAIRIE, Wis. — Near the end of a Women for Trump gathering here Sunday, in a Republican exurb of Milwaukee, a nervous voter from Illinois had a question about voting by mail. 

“Can I just get your thoughts on the mail-in ballots?” asked Donna Harbeck, 54. “I want to hear whether or not you believe these Democratic leaders will shut down polling places, and cite emergencies, due to covid, and try to block our votes.”

The answer from Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine was the same as the president’s: Absentee voting was reliable, while states sending every voter a ballot was “what Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats tried to push through.” Twenty-four hours later, Democrats were spending copious amounts of their limited prime time to warn against voter suppression, defend the U.S. Postal Service and lay out in detail how to make sure votes were counted.

Voting itself, a right that has never been settled in American elections, remains central to both parties’ messaging this year. In just two weeks, voters in some states will be able to get absentee ballots; in one month, Wisconsin voters will start receiving ballots that they can send back or drop off. And fear over how those ballots will be handled bubbled over Monday night.

“We've got to vote early, in person if we can,” Michelle Obama said in her convention speech. “We've got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow-up to make sure they're received. And then, make sure our friends and families do the same. We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we've got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to.”

The most significant line in the speech may have been “in person, if we can.” In interviews around Milwaukee, voters who said they planned to support Biden were frequently aware of the stories about slow mail delivery. Party officials frequently said they were encouraging people to request mail ballots but drop them off in person, rather than risking an interruption from the Postal Service. David Bowen, a 33-year-old state legislator from Milwaukee, said that he continued to vote in person in part to learn firsthand if there were problems at the polls or outright suppression. 

“Tricks can be played, and I want to experience that firsthand,” Bowen said. “It took me almost three hours to vote in the April primary, and it usually takes 15 minutes. Voter ID is still a big voter suppression tactic, and hopefully all of our 180 polling sites are open, but we need to make sure they are. When they’re closed, it leads to confusion — not knowing where to return your ballot, not knowing whether to get it signed.” 

Sue Sheldon, a 72-year-old delegate for Bernie Sanders from the Racine area, said her city had made it easy to request a ballot and to drop it off at the elections office. She had voted absentee all year, she said, but to be safe, she was going to carry her ballot all the way, once she filled it in.

“My ballot’s coming on September 17,” Sheldon said. “I’m going to bring it directly to the clerk, and not risk it getting lost in the mail, because of the sabotage.” 

Republicans who showed up at the Sunday event held a completely opposing view. Democratic panic about mail voting, they said, was not about the integrity of the vote, but about throwing up dust to excuse chicanery. In a short interview, Harbeck said she was upset by an “unsolicited letter” from the county encouraging her to get an absentee ballot.

“In talking to some fellow Republicans, what concerned them is that [Gov. J.B.] Pritzker will say, because it’s a national emergency, it’s unsafe to cast your ballot on Election Day,” Harbeck said. “There’s a fear he’ll shut down polling places. That has me outraged, that possibility.” 

While some Democratic and Republicans delayed primaries, or discouraged in-person voting, over the summer, there is no talk of shutting down polling places altogether. The problem they were more worried about was finding election volunteers to man the polls, fearing a crisis if voters were both panicked about sending ballots by mail and panicked about the lines or closures or health risks that could come if they voted in person.

Some of that panic might lift after this week is over. On Tuesday, in a statement, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the figure whom Democrats blamed for making changes that slowed down mail delivery, announced that those changes would be “suspended” until after the election. He'll appear before a Senate committee on Friday, and a House committee on Monday.

Candidate tracker

It's common for a political party to “bracket” the other party's political convention, holding events, rallies or news conferences to shape coverage for the thousands of media descending on host cities. Donald Trump is going further than that this week, holding rallies and news events every day as Joe Biden, as is typical for nominees during a convention, makes limited appearances until his Thursday night acceptance speech.

“Don’t believe the lies you’re going to hear on tape,” Trump told a Monday afternoon crowd in Oshkosh, Wis. “Most of it is going to be tape. I wonder is Joe Biden taping his speech too because if he is, I think I’ll tape mine. How do you watch a tape? They talk about a convention. How do you watch a taped speech? I would imagine Joe is going to do everything he can to tape it. I saw them asking him questions today. It was a news conference and he read them off a teleprompter.”

That last part wasn't true. Biden has not held a press availability since Aug. 5, when he took questions from Black and Latino journalists, but while he has called on reporters based on lists of who's been in attendance, the answers, obviously, were unscripted.

Biden himself appeared briefly at the DNC's first night, in a short segment with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, NAACP President Derrick Johnson and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being subjected to a chokehold by police.

“Most cops are good, but the fact is that the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out — period,” Biden said.

Over the weekend, Trump's campaign scorched Biden and running mate Kamala D. Harris for not taking questions or sitting for an interview ahead of the DNC. They will do so this week, sitting with ABC News for a segment to run on Sunday.

Countdown

… six days until the Republican National Convention
… seven days until runoffs in Oklahoma
… 14 days until the Massachusetts primary
… 21 days until primaries in New Hampshire and Rhode Island
… 28 days until primaries in Delaware
… 77 days until the general election