With less than three months until the US presidential election, both the Democrat and Republican parties have yet to officially nominate their candidates, a process that will begin next week at the national party conventions. As dictated by tradition, the party of the sitting president holds their convention last, with the Republican National Convention scheduled for the week following the Democratic National Convention, which will take place the week of August 17th.
As the sitting US president, it was all but determined that Donald Trump would again be the nominee of the Republican party. The Democrats, on the other hand, have been experiencing a growing divide between the older ‘establishment’ Democrats and the newer progressive movement.
But despite all the speculation surrounding the US 2020 presidential elections, no one predicted it would take place in the midst of a pandemic.
COVID-19 has affected the presidential race in numerous ways, changing the nature of campaigning due to the inability to host large gatherings and hindering the candidates’ ability to travel across the county on different campaign stops. It has also led to an expansion of mail-in ballots during state primary elections.
Even the planning of the convention itself has turned into a partisan battleground. Joe Biden repeatedly stated that his top priority is ensuring the public safety and some DNC members claimed that their inability to host the convention in person was a missed opportunity caused by Trump’s ineffective management of the coronavirus.
While initially moving the location of the Republican convention from Charlotte, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida in order to hold a non-masked rally, Trump recently decided to cancel the in-person segment of the convention and allow for a scaled-down version of the convention to take place as originally planned in Charlotte.
Despite the tumultuous events of 2020, it is not the most fraught convention to take place in US history. The Democratic convention of 1968 occurred shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy and was met with violent protestors who opposed the Vietnam War.
But this year’s conventions still mark a unique period in US history, with the majority of both the Democratic and Republican conventions taking place virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Historically, conventions were integral to determining the next presidential candidate as delegates were often chosen by party leaders in each state and did not have to cast their vote based on the public's preferences. In a bid to make the process more democratic, some states began to hold primary elections to determine which delegates would attend the conventions in the early 1900s, but it would take decades for this approach to become the norm throughout the United States.
The turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention saw Herbert Humphrey chosen as the Democratic party nominee, despite his non-participation in any of the primaries held that year. After losing to Richard Nixon, Democrats readjusted their strategy and introduced a series of reforms that allowed the popular vote to determine the party’s presidential candidate through the caucus and primary system. In 1984, Democrats allowed the election of unpledged delegates to the convention as a way to reassert party control over the nominating process. These unpledged members, known as superdelegates, are mainly made up of Democratic members of Congress and party leaders, and up until 2018 could help determine the next presidential candidate.
Following a vote by Democrats in August 2018, candidates can no longer rely on superdelegates to secure the nomination in the first round of voting during the Democratic convention. The Republican National Convention, while also relying on primary results to determine their presidential candidate for non-incumbent presidents, does not allow for superdelegates and instead allows all delegates to select their preferred choice if no candidate receives the needed majority of delegates.
Because caucuses and primaries occur long before the actual convention and signal who the next presidential candidate will be, conventions have morphed into largely symbolic gatherings to showcase a unified party approach and the commitments and values of the nominee.
The Republican Party has chosen to maintain their party platform from 2016, which featured an emphasis on ‘rebuilding the economy and creating jobs’, a revitalized energy strategy, protections on intellectual property, and an immigration system that protects American families, amongst other priorities. The draft of the 2020 Democratic Party platform, to be finalized and voted on during the convention, showcases the party’s response to recent events, with a focus on police brutality and a proposal to study the impact of institutional racism.
Party leaders on both sides of the aisle also use speaking opportunities to highlight their priorities ahead of the November election. The speaker lineup for the Democratic convention features party bigwigs including former presidents and first ladies Barack and Michelle Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton. The inclusion of Senator Bernie Sanders and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can also be viewed as an attempt to demonstrate the diversity of views within the party and unify the Democrats ahead of the election. Vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris will be speaking on the final day of the convention, allowing her the opportunity to express her views and show where she stands on national issues.
The Republican National Convention has yet to announce their speaker lineup but have made the decision to close the event to press, stating space is limited at the convention to allow for social distancing. There are plans to livestream the delegate vote but it is still unclear where Trump will make his acceptance speech, with both the White House and Gettysburg being floated as potential options.
While the presidential campaign has been underway for months, it will kick into high gear following the conventions with the first presidential debate taking place on the 29th of September. Though largely symbolic, the conventions continue to play a fundamental role in the election process.
Chatham House does not express opinions of its own. The opinions expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the author(s).