The first virtual convention is mostly a success

Early Returns

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Modern political conventions have two basic jobs. They need to offer a compelling speaker with a compelling speech in the slim prime-time broadcast window. And they must produce lots of video clips that can be repurposed across all sorts of platforms, from news programs to social media to paid advertisements.

The Democrats achieved both on the first night of their first virtual convention. Former First Lady Michelle Obama gave an outstanding speech, and the rest of the two-hour program included plenty of usable clips. Some of the highlights: former Vice President Joe Biden listening to Black Lives Matter activists and advocates of criminal-justice reform; an Arizona woman remembering her father, who died in the pandemic; a panel of health-care workers who've been fighting the virus.

Some of the politicians' speeches were fine, too. Senator Bernie Sanders gave a strong unity speech, telling his supporters what Biden and the party wanted them to hear. Alabama Senator Doug Jones showed why he's popular among Democrats, although he's unlikely to win re-election. I always like Senator Amy Klobuchar's lame jokes. But with the special format, all of the speeches were under 10 minutes except for Obama's, and only hers was memorable.

Was the whole thing compelling television? Of course not — just as the platform presentations of regular conventions aren't. But bits and pieces were, with a combination of taped and live elements and a mixture of video styles, from amateur to professional. Even the few technical hiccups helped to keep the whole thing from seeming too slick. And while I missed the hoopla and kitsch of traditional conventions — delegates and their banners and signs and funny hats and awkward dancing — eliminating them made the whole thing move a lot quicker. As Matt Glassman pointed out, "This format really does distill the modern convention to its infomercial essence." Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I'll end the first day with some speculation. I'm skeptical that Republicans are going to put together an equally professional presentation next week. Democrats realized that they weren't going to Milwaukee months ago; President Donald Trump held out hope that he'd be giving a live speech to cheering supporters until very recently. Meanwhile, Biden's campaign has been largely stable while Trump's has been in turmoil. 

That said, the 2016 Democratic convention was mostly well run while the Republican one had all sorts of technical and political problems, and it didn't seem to make any difference in the election outcome. And who knows? Perhaps Republicans will find a better way to do a virtual convention after all. In an election year with few precedents, anything's possible. 

1. Julia Azari on ways that conventions have mattered.

2. Sean Trende on Minnesota's political realignment.

3. Ariel Edwards-Levy on why we shouldn't expect big convention bounces in this year's polls.

4. Ed Kilgore on the old televised conventions.

5. And Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal on pandemic testing.

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