Democrats and Republicans are trying to prevent a 1968 redux as political organizers gather in Milwaukee and Jacksonville next month for their quadrennial presidential nominating conventions.
Fifty-two years ago, violence spiraled out of control as thousands of Vietnam War protesters battled police in the streets in Chicago, overshadowing the Democratic nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and marring his election chances.
That August, the country was still reeling from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the ongoing racial unrest that followed the latter. Similar clashes are taking place today along with an unprecedented health pandemic that has tanked the economy, President Trump’s top reelection strength.
Meanwhile, the convention will offer a rare four days of sustained media spotlight for former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been relegated since March to scripted, virtual campaign events, many from his Delaware basement. The pandemic has also put a halt to President Trump’s free-wheeling rallies that catapulted him to the top of the GOP heap in 2016. Recently, he has struggled to run his campaign from the White House.
Safeguarding both the health and security of convention delegates and guests is now the paramount priority of both parties. But neither is providing definitive answers regarding how they plan to do so – even with less than a month to go before the political pageantry, such as it will be this year, begins.
When Trump travels to Jacksonville and Biden arrives in Milwaukee, the Secret Service will roll into those towns with them. Even when combined with a muscular local police presence, that may not be enough. The president recently dispatched federal law enforcement teams to Portland, Ore., to quell ongoing tumult there, and he’s announced plans to send them to other cities where violence has spiked in the wake of protests against police brutality.
They may soon also be deployed to protect both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to say whether federal agents would provide additional security but did note that $100 million has already been allocated for law enforcement, including “things like personnel.”
If federal law enforcement does step in to help secure both cities, that is where most similarities between the two conventions will end.
Democrats are preparing for a party like no other, mostly because the hosts are encouraging guests not to attend. At least, not in person.
The Democratic National Convention, set for Aug. 17-20, will not have the large crowds or the boozy welcome receptions or the hoard of overtired and over-enthusiastic reporters swarming delegates and candidates. It will be different than in years past, and that is by design. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to upend normal life and traditional politicking, convention planning committees have switched gears. Most notably, this means going virtual: Delegates will debate online and cast votes online and watch Biden accept the nomination online.
All of those changes, DNC spokesman Tim Carroll told RealClearPolitics, are part of “a commitment to protecting the health of our host community and everyone involved with the convention, unlike President Trump, whose reckless approach to planning a convention ignores the reality of the deadly pandemic.”
Democrats will lean into that comparison even if it requires a mostly empty convention hall. The DNC will soon announce health protocols in conjunction with local medical officials already on the ground. Planners are also hyping their in-house team of epidemiologists and infectious diseases efforts. That effort will be led by Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, an expert in diagnostic testing who serves as director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, and by Dr. Larry Brilliant, best known for his work on the eradication of smallpox around the world.
“While this year’s convention will certainly look and feel different than any before, we remain focused on making sure every delegate can accomplish their official business without risk to personal or public health,” Carroll said. “We’re also committed to finding new and innovative ways to make this event an inclusive experience — involving more communities and more Americans in new ways.”
How that all shakes out — for instance, will the party’s elder statesmen easily pivot to internet video? — remains to be seen. And so far, no schedule has been released. But there are still plenty of big events to spotlight. There will be the adoption of the party platform (a “unity task force” helmed by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders has released a 110-page list of progressive recommendations). Then there will be the official nomination of Biden and his still-to-be-announced running mate.
The buzzwords so far are “multiple formats and mediums,” as the party works to find ways of generating enthusiasm for an online event. The DNC has already started crowdsourcing ideas from voters across the country for how the event should proceed and it has set up an online hub for delegates to weigh in. What won’t change is Biden’s theme: renewal.
He began his campaign in Philadelphia last year by preaching a message of unity to “a nation sick of division.” Carroll said to expect more on that theme from a celebration set to spotlight “the strength and collective humanity of our nation and demonstrate that Vice President Biden is the leader the country needs right now.”
The convention will also be unique because it comes as passions continue to flare over racial inequality. If demonstrators like those currently in Portland and Chicago come to Milwaukee, it could create a whole new security challenge.
An official familiar with the planning process told RCP that, no matter what, the safety of participants and the surrounding communities is the DNC’s “top priority.” Milwaukee already has plans to set aside “assembly points” in an attempt “to facilitate the First Amendment rights of speech and assembly to all interested persons.”
Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters last week that local police are preparing for “peacekeeping.” The Democrat added, however, that “I have been very clear over the last several months that I don’t believe that military approaches are what is needed.” Rubber bullets, for instance, will not be permitted.
As a designated National Special Security Event, the convention requires the presence of federal agencies to ensure fulfillment of its mission. But the security budget has been downsized in light of the shrunken nature of the gathering. According to the mayor, the U.S. Department of Justice has approved Milwaukee’s scaled-back expenditure of $40 million, down from the previously requested $50 million.
For Republicans, it’s been a much slower shift to a downsized convention after the pandemic’s persistence slowly squelched plans for a full, high-octane, week-long celebration of Trump’s first term.
In June, after two years of planning, Republicans yanked their convention, scheduled for Aug. 24-27, from Charlotte, N.C. Team Trump was reacting to Democratic city officials derailing GOP plans to go big due to disagreements about what kind of social distancing and safety protocols were needed inside the convention hall. The shift south to Jacksonville was in part the result of simple electoral math. In the early summer, North Carolina was looking like less of a problem for Trump than Florida, the president’s new home state and a critical battleground.
Now that coronavirus cases have spiked in the Sunshine State, increasing fivefold in two weeks, Republicans have tried to reassure wary convention attendees that they’re doing everything they can to safeguard them from the virus.
“We plan to implement a variety of health protocols in order to ensure a safe event,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel wrote in a letter sent to committee members last week. “The plan includes but it is not limited to on-site temperature checks, available PPE, aggressive sanitizing protocols, and available COVID-19 testing.”
Still, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, a Republican, has openly fretted that the city isn’t ready for the event because of the short turnaround time and lack of funding. And in early July, the Florida Sheriffs Association reported that it hasn’t recruited enough officers from the state’s 66 other counties to meet a 2,000-officer goal. As of earlier this week, only 500 had signed up.
“We do need law enforcement officers, and we’ve gotten commitments, but not to the level that we thought we needed,” Williams told Politico. “And a lot of that is people having virus concerns from their communities, and I understand that.”
The Republican National Committee this week said it is confident of its ability to protect both the health and security of convention guests, though it has announced plans to restrict in-person participation during the first few days of the gathering.
“The RNC continues to work closely with local leadership in Jacksonville on planning for the convention, including on health and security measures, and the Department of Justice is in the process of allocating millions of dollars in a safety grant,” a party spokesperson told RCP. “Jacksonville has accommodated upwards of 70,000 people for football games and other events, and we are confident in state, local and federal officials to be able to ensure a safe event for our attendees.”
Republicans this week laid out more details about their trimmed-back agenda, which will still officially begin in Charlotte, where the RNC is still hosting its summer meeting the weekend of Aug. 22-23. On the morning of Aug. 24, 336 delegates will cast proxy votes on behalf of more than 2,500 delegates to officially nominate Trump as the party’s choice for president. There also won’t be the usual intra-party platform infighting or meetings since the 2016 platform will remain in place until 2024. Officials didn’t want a small number of people passing a new platform on behalf of all delegates, which the city of Charlotte barred from full attendance.
The action will then shift down to Jacksonville the afternoon of Aug. 24 for four nights of speeches and programming.
The RNC executive committee unanimously approved efforts to purposefully pare down attendance the first days and limit it to regular delegates only. On Thursday, when Trump will publicly accept the nomination, regular delegates along with a guest, as well as alternative delegates, will be permitted to attend.
Still, plans appear far more in flux than for previous conventions, thanks to logistical hurdles that come with planning a rushed event during a pandemic. GOP officials wouldn’t say exactly where the events each night will take place, noting only that they plan to utilize a number of indoor and outdoor venues in a multi-block radius of downtown Jacksonville, including the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena; TIAA Bank Field, where the Jaguars play; Daily’s Place Amphitheater; 121 Financial Ballpark, a downtown minor league baseball stadium; and several other sites.
Whether there are enough funds to pull off the made-for-TV events, ending in the traditional balloon drop on the last night, is still an open question given the extra security and health concerns playing critical roles this year. By late last week, the Jacksonville host committee had reportedly nailed down roughly $20 million in pledges, although a spokeswoman has said only that “tens of millions” have been raised so far. That number compares to $66 million the 2016 GOP convention raked in for Trump’s first nominating celebration.
When it comes to providing security, Sheriff Williams has complained that a $50 million federal grant had been pared back to $33 million. A Justice Department spokesperson said the Office of Justice Programs has appropriated $100 million to be used for law enforcement activities necessary for both the Republican and Democratic conventions.
Despite the still-fluid nature of the event, the RNC is trying to reassure Republicans that it will remain must-watch television, even with a downsized crowd there to witness it on hand. “I want to reiterate that the RNC is working around the clock to ensure the convention celebration in Jacksonville is an exciting, premier event,” McDaniel stressed in her letter to RNC members.