The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The United States of America, ranked by their Biden nomination videos

The roll call vote gave each delegation an opportunity to showcase itself during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s generally the case that the actual state-by-state nominations of the presidential candidates is the most entertaining part of the conventions. After all, it’s regular-ish people (that is, as regular as you get in national politics) speaking on behalf of their home states, trying to demonstrate enthusiasm for both the nominee and the place they represent.

In years past, that’s meant microphones shoved in the faces of people standing under a sign reading “PENNSYLVANIA” or whatever, ginning up energy to tout how they are the “proud home of the Pittsburgh Steelers! And historic coke ovens!” and also would like to “cast all of our votes for our next president!” Awkward, muted cheers from the people around, and off we go to Rhode Island.

This year, though, given the coronavirus pandemic, the nominating speeches came not from the floor of the convention but, instead, from the states and territories themselves. It was an unquestionable improvement, not only for the way in which it broke up the monotony of the proceedings but also because it laid bare 57 different approaches to the situation. Each place had to figure out what they would show and how they would show it, mixing the necessary politics with an interest in enticing people to see their states as appealing for business or — someday! — travel. And so we got a wonderful depiction of American diversity, a range of people, places, pitches and presentations that ranged from terrible to tremendous, from mystifying to moving.

In the emergent spirit of rating online videos, I decided to rank each state’s presentation, cobbling together a score for each presentation based on six metrics, ranked from most to least important in our total score:

  • Politics. The extent to which the presentation aided the effort to elect Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
  • Authenticity. The extent to which the presentation captured the spirit of the state.
  • Aesthetics. How the presentation looked.
  • Use of real people. Why have a senator make the case when you could have someone that actually spends time in the state do it?
  • Tourist appeal. Did the presentation make you want to actually visit?
  • Bonus points. A catchall for things that didn’t fit into the above categories but deserved points.

In case of ties in the overall score, states were sorted according to my opinion of which was better, an opinion which is objectively correct. So, we begin.

57. Indiana. Score: 37.

Politics: 4. Authenticity: 0. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 1. Bonus points: 1.

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg anchored Indiana’s last-place segment, apparently shot in a hall of mirrors at a carnival just outside Indianapolis. (This may be inaccurate.) Dry, weird — but a bonus point for the sheer risk the state took. It paid off in the sense that it probably made a lot of people want to stream “Logan’s Run.”

56. Wisconsin. Score: 41.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 1. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 1. Bonus points: 0.

The convention’s host state had a disadvantage: It had to present its votes from the sterile convention-floor lectern.

55. Massachusetts. Score: 43.

Politics: 4. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 2. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 1. Bonus points: 0.

Some states pretaped their presentations, giving them flexibility in what they would show. Massachusetts, it seemed, did its presentation live. In the dark. Outside a building unhelpfully left unidentified for viewers.

The authenticity score is as high as it is solely because of the presenter’s legitimate accent.

54. South Carolina. Score: 46.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 1. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 1. Bonus points: 0.

South Carolina is a beautiful state, one with a history that’s potentially quite instructive for the political moment in a number of ways.

What it gave viewers Tuesday night, though, was Senate candidate Jaime Harrison sitting at a desk.

53. Connecticut. Score: 48.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 0.

Standing outside a firehouse, speaking on behalf of the governor as he stands next to you? Come on, Connecticut.

52. New Jersey. Score: 49.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

Standing outside a concert hall in Asbury Park without even mentioning Bruce Springsteen for the 45th time during the convention? Come on, New Jersey.

51. Mississippi. Score: 49.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 2. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 0.

Mississippi chose to present its votes from a classroom in Tougaloo College, drawing attention to historically Black colleges and universities. A valid subject — but a presentation that ended up mostly showing a cinder-block wall.

50. Illinois. Score: 52.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

I understand that for places such as Illinois, there’s a natural tension. Do you accentuate Chicago, a large, vibrant city with a lot of interesting visual locations? Or do you play up the state’s Midwesternness, hoping to appeal to swing voters?

Or do you do neither?

49. Iowa. Score: 53.

Politics: 3. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 3.

Iowa’s presentation understandably centered on the damage the state endured from last week’s derecho — a message of urgency if not one that is focused on Biden’s reelection. (As for the location, a cornfield is almost too on-the-nose? But we digress.)

48. Minnesota. Score: 56.

Politics: 4. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 1.

Here’s something you won’t read every day: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was the more compelling part of the video. Her emphasis on rebuilding infrastructure was good and offered an interesting visual. Overall, though, not exceptional.

47. West Virginia. Score: 56.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 0.

Standing in front of a mural to talk about education when your state is home to a memorial to John Brown in an aesthetically fascinating place such as Harpers Ferry? Miss.

46. Louisiana. Score: 56.

Politics: 4. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 7. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

The artistic backdrops provided by the location, Studio BE in New Orleans, were the standout here.

45. Vermont. Score: 57.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 1.

There was a good tweet in which the scene in Vermont was contrasted with the movie poster for “Parasite,” which was apt. Why did Vermont get a 5 for authenticity? Because Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was there, which is authentically Vermont.

44. New Hampshire. Score: 57.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 1.

One of a slew of states that offered up a bland nomination stew of A Place, Some People and A Little Enthusiasm. That enthusiasm got them a bonus point, at least.

43. California. Score: 58.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 0.

California is a beautiful, diverse state that’s home to the most sophisticated entertainment industry in the world. Its nominating video featured elected officials, was poorly lit and had a generic-for-California beach.

42. Michigan. Score: 58.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 2. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 1.

Standing in front of cars is on-brand, no doubt. The sheer directness of it earned a bonus point.

41. Kentucky. Score: 58.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 2. Aesthetics: 2. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 1. Bonus points: 2.

One of several states that offered a compelling story not focused on the state itself. Given the criteria we established, that meant that Kentucky fared poorly, but that doesn’t mean the presentation wasn’t important.

I feel guilty about this, in case that wasn’t clear.

40. Maryland. Score: 58.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

I am a native of Rochester, N.Y., a city which justifiably prides itself as the home of Frederick Douglass. So understand that Maryland’s claiming Douglass, while valid, was met with some skepticism.

39. Arkansas. Score: 58.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 2. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 0.

Arkansas shot its video outside the Bill Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, which is a sensible if uncreative choice. The aesthetics were bland, though the political point — people coming together to feed those in need — was powerful.

38. Democrats Abroad. Score: 59.

Politics: 3. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 7. Bonus points: 1.

A nice reminder that some Americans are lucky enough to get to visit Europe in this moment.

37. District of Columbia. Score: 61.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 1.

At first, I rated the authenticity of D.C.'s presentation — a rooftop shot looking out over Black Lives Matter Plaza — fairly low. But, really, what’s more authentically Political D.C. than standing on a patio near the White House?

36. Arizona. Score: 62.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

Standing by a cactus in the desert, a teacher describes the moment. A useful message, if an uninspired presentation of it.

35. Delaware. Score: 66.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

Biden’s home state gave us two elected officials standing on a train platform. Lots of reasons, of course. But it could have been much more authentic had it been recorded from a toll booth on I-95.

34. Guam. Score: 69.

Politics: 4. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 5. Bonus points: 1.

The territories consistently offered interesting aesthetics and messages. That Guam is the lowest rated among the territories in our ranking but still ends up in the middle of the pack tells you something.

33. Idaho. Score: 69.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 7. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 6. Bonus points: 0.

We’re now starting to get into the range of states for which scores were boosted by the aesthetics of the scene. Idaho is a beautiful state, and it decided to make that point in offering its delegate votes.

32. Oklahoma. Score: 69.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 0.

A deliberate embrace of the state’s history focused on the Tulsa race massacre 99 years ago. Not what one thinks of when one thinks of Oklahoma, which is the point.

31. New York. Score: 71.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 5. Bonus points: 2.

My home state offered up a nurse standing in Brooklyn with a darkened view of Lower Manhattan. Eh. Okay, I guess.

But bonus points for the wonderfully odd ending: the nurse exclaiming, “It’s Joe time!” prompting the state’s lieutenant governor, standing behind her, to begin earnestly clapping, all by herself.

30. North Dakota. Score: 72.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 7. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

A native of the state standing in front of a sweeping vista. Not exceptional, but pleasant.

29. Virgin Islands. Score: 73.

Politics: 4. Authenticity: 7. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 2.

I am obviously a sucker for enthusiastic clapping, which the presentation from the Virgin Islands offered at very specific points. Was the video polished? It was not. Is that why it scored well? It is.

28. Utah. Score: 73.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 0.

Utah’s focus on its use of all-mail voting was pointed and topical. The scene, set outside the statehouse, was uninspired though not unappealing.

27. Nebraska. Score: 77.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 1.

Nebraska presented a worker from a meatpacking plant standing near (presumably) her home, describing the risks her job posed to her health. Like Kentucky, a compelling story, if one that didn’t highlight the state itself.

26. Pennsylvania. Score: 74.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 1.

Like Delaware, Pennsylvania focused on its relationship to Biden. Set outside the house where Biden grew up in Scranton, it reinforced the former vice president’s ties to a swing state. It also offered some off-camera cheering, earning a bonus point.

25. American Samoa. Score: 75.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 6. Bonus points: 1.

An appealing setting featuring two masked members of the armed forces. Well done.

24. Washington. Score: 76.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 7. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 0.

Like Idaho, Washington opted for a panoramic vista. Combined with a personal story about a politically important subject, immigration, Washington did well.

23. Missouri. Score: 77.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 7. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 5. Bonus points: 1.

A building trades union member standing near the arch? Authentic; politically useful.

22. Alabama. Score: 77.

Politics: 9. Authenticity: 3. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 3.

Given that the voting proceeded alphabetically, Alabama went first in the delegate announcements. A well-shot presentation of the Edmund Pettus Bridge allowed Alabama to focus on the late Georgia congressman John Lewis and his push for voting rights.

21. Kansas. Score: 78.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 8. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 4. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 2.

An unpolished farmer, standing in a field without any visual identification of the state he was representing is to Kansas what the union member near the arch was to Missouri.

20. Montana. Score: 79.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 9. Aesthetics: 1. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 2.

A college student standing in a cow field, her words almost drowned out by the wind. Montana.

19. North Carolina. Score: 79.

Politics: 8. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 1.

Nurse Cozzie Watkins’s impassioned speech quickly earned her attention.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, so let me just be plain,” she said. “Black people, especially Black women, are the backbone of this party. And if we don’t show up, Democrats don’t get elected. I’m putting on my mask, and we’re going to every corner in North Carolina to help organize. Because we need to make sure everyone shows up for Joe Biden. He would show up for us.”

The setting? Not thrilling. But an earnest, energetic statement that many states lacked.

18. Alaska. Score: 79.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 8. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 0.

Like Montana, a strong representation of the state. Unlike Montana, a visually compelling scene.

17. Puerto Rico. Score: 80.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 8. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 5. Bonus points: 0.

The only presentation offered entirely in Spanish. The visual itself, though, was not particularly interesting, and while the presentation was about the effects of Hurricane Maria, it did so relatively obliquely.

16. Oregon. Score: 80.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 0.

Oregon has natural beauty, but the state chose instead to highlight its quirky aesthetic, featuring a mural commemorating a deadly attack in Portland. Its better-than-average presentation highlighted the need to confront “the dual viruses of covid-19 and racism” as it offered its delegate votes for Biden.

15. Georgia. Score: 81.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 1.

Georgia, too, invoked the legacy of Lewis, choosing as its backdrop a large mural of the civil rights leader. The presentation made pointed reference to “Georgians know[ing] that our ability to vote is under attack” — a reference in part to the 2018 gubernatorial contest.

14. Ohio. Score: 82.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 8. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 0. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 1.

I went to Ohio State University and went to high school with children whose parents worked at the Lordstown auto plant, so I will admit some bias in favor of the state here. But emphasizing the fate of that plant under Trump is politically significant, and there is little more legitimately “Ohio” than an “O-H”/"I-O” call-and-response.

13. Nevada. Score: 83.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 7. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 5. Bonus points: 1.

Shot under the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, Nevada’s presentation served directly as an appeal for tourism.

12. Tennessee. Score: 84.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 7. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 1.

A group of women standing in Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel marked the centennial of women earning the right to vote. What set Tennessee’s presentation apart, though, was the enthusiastic conclusion, with the audience breaking into overenthusiastic applause as the young presenter announced the state’s support for Biden.

11. Maine. Score: 85.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 6. Bonus points: 1.

Maine chose to be represented by a Black organic farmer who owns a bed-and-breakfast with his husband. He offered the state’s support for Biden while standing in front of a bucolic scene, including a red house, and sent a message about the diversity of even heavily White states.

10. New Mexico. Score: 86.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 7. Aesthetics: 7. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 7. Bonus points: 1.

A Native American state lawmaker offered New Mexico’s votes for Biden while standing in front of a dramatic vista, showing off the state’s natural beauty. Compelling.

9. Colorado. Score: 86.

Politics: 7. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 7. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 7. Bonus points: 1.

Colorado’s scenery, though, was even more beautiful. And its presentation more potent: a family led by immigrants affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

8. Virginia. Score: 86.

Politics: 9. Authenticity: 4. Aesthetics: 4. Real people: 5. Tourist appeal: 2. Bonus points: 1.

Four years ago, Khizr Khan offered the most forceful speech of the Democratic convention, calling out Donald Trump’s approach to American service members by invoking the memory of his son, killed in action in Iraq. Now, Khan spoke from Charlottesville, reminding viewers of the violent protests that occurred in that city three years ago after a demonstration in support of Confederate monuments and white nationalism — a demonstration to which Trump offered words of encouragement.

One of the most politically potent presentations of the night.

7. South Dakota. Score: 87.

Politics: 5. Authenticity: 8. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 5. Bonus points: 1.

A strong presentation from a Native American resident of the state set against a beautiful backdrop.

6. Hawaii. Score: 89.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 7. Real people: 3. Tourist appeal: 7. Bonus points: 1.

In any state beauty contest, Hawaii will fare well. It does here, but that’s also in part because of the presentation the state offered.

“Today, I want to speak to my fellow immigrants, to the essential workers on the front line, to the service members who wear our flag, to the parents with big dreams for their children,” the presenter said. “No matter where we came from, immigrants belong in our country’s long fight for justice. We belong in the America we are building together.”

A direct rebuke of the incumbent.

5. Florida. Score: 89.

Politics: 8. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 5. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 2.

The oversized Adirondack chair designed for tourist Instagram photos was authentic, if not particularly attractive. But the presentation of the delegate vote, offered by the father of a student slain in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, again forced viewers to consider a central political issue for the campaign.

His fist pump as he announced Biden’s name earned him bonus points, too.

4. Rhode Island. Score: 89.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 10. Aesthetics: 3. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 2.

People will take issue with our putting Rhode Island only in fourth place. After all, what could be more authentic than highlighting the state’s calamari appetizer while announcing its delegate votes for Biden? And then referring to Rhode Island as the “calamari comeback” state? And doing so next to a silent man wearing all black, holding a plate of calamari on the beach?

All of that is granted. But from a political standpoint, what did you walk away with? An understanding of why Biden should be president? Or an understanding of the appetizers on which Rhode Island prides itself?

3. Northern Mariana Islands. Score: 91.

Politics: 6. Authenticity: 9. Aesthetics: 5. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 6. Bonus points: 0.

“Hello from paradise,” the presentation began, showing a number of island residents standing in front of a beautiful backdrop.

But it became more pointed.

“We don’t get to vote for president,” the presenter said. “So please don’t waste yours.”

2. Texas. Score: 92.

Politics: 8. Authenticity: 5. Aesthetics: 8. Real people: 2. Tourist appeal: 4. Bonus points: 0.

Texas’s presentation was elegantly filmed in front of a large mural depicting a Mexican man flexing his muscles. The focus of the presentation was the mass shooting in El Paso last year, offering an opportunity to discuss both gun laws and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Compelling and visually interesting.

1. Wyoming. Score: 96.

Politics: 8. Authenticity: 6. Aesthetics: 6. Real people: 5. Tourist appeal: 3. Bonus points: 1.

The most effective presentation, though, was that of Wyoming.

Standing in front of a broad, variegated expanse, the parents of Matthew Shepard spoke movingly about how Biden worked with them to pass legislation aimed at protecting gay, lesbian and transgender Americans from hate crimes. It was a near-perfect blend of strong representation of the state and for the Democratic candidate.

It was also a powerful reminder of how much the country has changed in the past 22 years — and how it hasn’t.

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