As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc across much of the world, with the United States the worst affected, today’s news is that the Republican convention scheduled for next month in Jacksonville, Florida, has been cancelled.
Observers of US politics will be familiar with the spectacle of the national convention: once a real debating and decision-making forum, but in recent decades a large-scale publicity event at which each party formally nominates its presidential candidate and that candidate presents their choice of a running-mate.
By tradition, the party currently in opposition holds its convention first. With the coronavirus rampant, the Democrats quickly decided that the traditional event, with thousands of people packed into close quarters, was not a good idea. So their convention, to be held in the third week of August and based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will mostly take place online and via satellite locations around the country.
But the Republicans, being less inclined to take the health crisis seriously, were slower to revise their plans. That was especially the case for incumbent and presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who was determined, in Ed Kilgore’s words, to “be allowed to hold his acceptance speech in a hall packed with unmasked, cheering MAGA [Make America Great Again] fans.”
In search of a more friendly venue, the key parts of the Republican convention were moved to Jacksonville from Charlotte, North Carolina. But with Covid-19 in Florida now topping 10,000 new cases a day this also began to look untenable. Earlier today the president pulled the plug, saying that “We have to be vigilant, we have to be careful and we have to set an example.”
Full credit to him for this recognition of reality, but it’s come at a late hour. A Democrat strategist speaking to the BBC was shameless in their gloating:
I wonder who will have the better convention – the party who recognised the limitations early on and have been planning for a mostly virtual/digital television production to capitalise on a prime-time audience of millions, or the clowns who keep moving theirs from place to place and have no concrete plan a month out.
Does it matter? There’s a thriving literature on the political effects of the conventions, and on the “bounce” that each party typically receives in the polls immediately following its event. But TV ratings for the events have been in decline for a long time, and the more tightly-scripted they become the less likely it is that voters will find something there to change their minds.
The Democrats at least have the advantage that their voters mostly agree with them on the risks that the coronavirus poses, so they’re unlikely to be put off by their convention’s migration into cyberspace. But large numbers of Republican voters are Covid-sceptic, so a president that, by their lights, has given in to scaremongering may have more difficulty in firing their enthusiasm.
On the other hand, there are already multiple indications that voter behavior in this election – like the last one, but more so – will be driven less by enthusiasm for a party’s candidate and more by dislike of the alternative. Last week Michael Tesler at FiveThirtyEight explained that the supposed “enthusiasm gap”, by which Republicans like Trump more than Democrats like their presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, is a misleading notion:
[W]hile Biden voters may not be all that excited about voting for Biden, they’re very enthusiastic about voting against Trump. And that gives Biden a pretty strong edge, because Trump supporters don’t despise Biden the way they despised Hillary Clinton in 2016. … [B]ecause Trump voters don’t dislike Biden as much as Biden voters dislike Trump, Biden actually has an advantage in net enthusiasm.
With three and a half months to go until polling day, there’s still time for that to change. But Biden certainly won’t be unhappy about the fact that the Republican convention, however it happens, is now less likely to be making headlines and more likely to look like a tale of Trumpian incompetence.