Spreading the events across several locations would dilute the traditional pageantry of the convention — and limit the masses of delegates and onlookers who flock to the events. But it would allow the party to target specific areas where it hopes to turn voters its way in November, according to the two Democrats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private planning.
“If we were to be remote and in more places than just Milwaukee, it would likely be the case that we would be in battleground states,” said one knowledgeable Democrat, who said no decision has been made.
The presidential conventions, marquee events for each political party that traditionally offer four full nights of televised appeals to voters, are one of the few major events of the summer to remain on the calendar, although the Democratic gathering has already been pushed back from mid-July to Aug. 17 in hopes that the coronavirus outbreak will diminish over time.
The Summer Olympics, which were to occur between the two conventions on the original schedule, have been delayed for a year; professional sports leagues have halted, and schools are weighing whether they will be able to start back in the fall.
Biden held his last in-person campaign event in early March. Since then, he’s been holed up in his home in Wilmington, Del., where he has communicated via video stream and telephone. Trump has gone without his trademark rallies since March as well, although lately he has chafed at his White House quarantine and ventured to some swing states for official events.
For Democrats, the satellite idea grew out of conversations about how the party would handle a convention if major speakers were not able to travel to or stay in Milwaukee. In that case, one Democrat said, it would make sense to have some of them located in the states that will decide the election. The ideas included holding events in five or six different states.
The discussions come as local leaders in both Wisconsin and North Carolina, the site of the Republican convention, have begun to speak out with concern about hosting mass gatherings that attract tens of thousands of travelers from around the world.
Milwaukee’s health commissioner, Jeanette Kowalik, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week that “shifting to a more virtual [convention] would be ideal to protect the public,” echoing comments from Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) that a virtual event would be the “smartest way.”
“I think you should hope for the best and plan for the worst,” said North Carolina’s top health official, Mandy Cohen, just days after the mayor of the host city of Charlotte, Vi Lyles, said on MSNBC that the Republican event “will be very different” because of the virus.
Republican National Committee officials have traveled to Charlotte in recent weeks and are still determined to have the event there, party officials said. Invites went out in the last week to top party donors, inviting them to a four-day event in the city.
But Republican leaders have also discussed scaling back their event, as local and state officials have not made a final decision yet on whether they can host it as originally planned. President Trump has suggested having backup plans ready in case Charlotte spurns the convention, including having the event in Florida, which has begun to reopen its public spaces earlier than many other states and is run by a Trump ally, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
“I would hope there are people who use common sense in terms of scaling down the convention,” said Charlotte City Councilman Malcolm Graham (D). “Having 50,000 people come is in no one’s interest.”
Democrats are also moving to change their party rules to allow for a virtual event, with remote voting by delegates, if needed.
The full membership of the Democratic National Committee is voting on the change by mail, with the ballots due to be returned before the end of the month, according to a party spokeswoman.
Katie Peters, the communications director of the Democratic convention effort, said the party remained committed to hosting an event in Milwaukee.
“Even without the pandemic in the picture, we would be looking at creative production elements we can do to bring the country together,” she said. “But at this point, our plans are very much centered on Milwaukee.”
Conversations between the Biden campaign and convention planners have been described as open-ended and speculative. The Biden campaign will ultimately make the decisions about the shape of the convention.
Democratic convention planners have access to several possible venues in Milwaukee separate from Fiserv Forum, a basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks that was to be the main gathering place. These include the city’s convention center, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Miller High Life Theatre, a music venue.
Biden has said he hopes to be in Milwaukee for the convention, regardless of how limited the attendance could be. The city was chosen in part because Wisconsin was a state where Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, and it continues to be seen as the tipping-point state in 2020.
“[Biden] recognizes the strategic importance of being there, and he’s said he’s going to be there,” said one of the Democrats.