In a typical political convention cycle, anchors and field correspondents from every major network in America would be living out of their suitcases right now to report live from the site of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17-20, and then the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24-27. At the risk of stating the obvious, however, 2020 is no ordinary year.
The unique health and safety challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic have transformed both presidential campaigns, albeit at varying intervals. In June, the DNC delayed their four-day event for a full month and moved to an all-virtual format that begins Monday; Joe Biden also decided to accept his party's nomination on Thursday from his home state of Delaware, rather than the previously announced convention site in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And after initially considering Charlotte, North Carolina, and then in Jacksonville, Florida, the RNC followed suit with a mostly virtual convention, and Donald Trump announced that his acceptance will take place at the White House rather than Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
These shifts were expected after seeing how other major events have been affected by the virus -- awards shows and media conventions have largely gone virtual, and sporting events have foregone in-person fans and even suspended play altogether in some cases -- but they are no less challenging for even the most veteran news professionals to adjust to.
"I've said the virus has a vote here, and the vote it's making is changing our entire trajectory," Fox News Special Report anchor Bret Baier told TV Guide. Baier said that he had staff "ready to go" if Trump's acceptance were to take place at the historic battlefield, but he conceded that COVID-19 has otherwise gutted his usual ground game for the events.
"[In] traditional years, I would have a travel schedule that first would bounce me around the country to swing states, probably, and eventually land at the convention city, at which point we would set up shop with a big logistical footprint and sets and walk-and-talks to see the delegates with the funny hats and talk to all kinds of people on the ground. That is not happening," Baier explained. In lieu of traditional on-site reporting for the events, he and co-anchor Martha MacCallum will host their coverage live from Washington, D.C., with some correspondents in position to capture the in-person delegate voting.
NBC's Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd told TV Guide that the network is also strictly limiting its reliance on field reporters for the conventions and is even taking the precaution of not bringing New York-based anchors, Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie, to D.C. NBC's D.C.-based anchors, Todd and Andrea Mitchell, will continue to provide coverage from the capital.
Todd added that the kind of storylines he'd usually be following for this moment have been severely limited by the pandemic. "Frankly, I like to spend most of the summer in a presidential election year starting to talk to voters around the country, and not being able to do that has been limiting," Todd said. "In 2016, one of the biggest things we were concerned about [was] getting on the ground more. We prepared ourselves to be more on the ground than ever before for this cycle, and we're prevented from doing it. In that sense, it's been a very frustrating development. But we're rolling with it."
The logistics of figuring out how to provide live coverage of this year's conventions have been challenging, but there's a sense among anchors that there may be a silver lining that emerges from the virtual formatting: clearer messaging from the politicians and speakers involved.
Baier said he expects Fox News's coverage of the issues to be fairly similar to what they've done in the past, despite the virtual format. But he noted that the conventions may put a stronger focus on the substance of the speeches this year, without the traditional trappings, like "bells and whistles and balloons falling," that come with a live audience. "I think one of the things that will be the result of this is that there will be more focus on what is said specifically and what the platform and the policies are," Baier said. "Big picture, that may be a good thing as far as voters being able to choose how they are going to vote. ... In our current environment, because of the gravity of the situations -- dealing with COVID, dealing with social justice and unrest, and dealing with uncertainty when it comes to the economy -- they're so huge that I think the eyeballs will be there no matter what."
Todd, too, anticipates that the virtual format will make the conventions "more message-disciplined than ever before," but he notes that something intangible may be lost in the process. "I'll be very curious to see what kind of impact these conventions have," Todd said. "They're also four-day advertisements. That aspect isn't new, but the live event, the crowd inside, the delegates, all of that, created a very compelling thing to watch -- the pomp and circumstance of politics. And without the liveliness, how do you make speeches that are designed to be very talking point[-centered] compelling without that live audience helping to draw viewers in? I think that is going to be a challenge."
Just days ahead of the DNC, the public got a preview of how an audience-free speech looks like from the Democratic campaign, when Joe Biden appeared alongside his newly announced vice presidential pick Kamala Harris in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12. The former vice president and his new running mate spoke of their reasons for joining forces, their plans to tackle the major crises of the moment, and their grievances with the current leadership in the White House. The quiet that followed even their most poignant words was unusual -- the typical audience applause that might accompany such statements was virtually non-existent -- but that silent reception also meant that their speeches were never overshadowed by spectacle.
"I saw the Harris-Biden roll-out [on Wednesday] and I thought, well this is the beginning of the general election," Todd said. "This is a preview of what all four days of the messaging will be. I think there's going to be four days of speeches and videos that are going to reinforce that message."
However, even if the politicians and speakers are focused more on messaging this year, CBS News contributor María Elena Salinas raised concerns about whether or not they will be able to connect to voters through a virtual event. "Speakers usually feed off the applause of the audience in the hall and use one-liners that the audience chants and later become slogans for the rest of the campaign. Without that we'll have to see if the speeches actually drive a more direct message or fall flat for the virtual audience," she explained. "The question is: Will people watch? And if they do, will they be listening? I say that because so many people have already made up their minds who they will vote for. The pool of undecideds is lower than in previous elections," Salinas continued. "The challenge will be to get voters enthused enough so they don't sit out the election."
Salinas does anticipate that the Latinx community willbe paying close attention to the events. For her coverage, she said, "I expect to be able to talk about the importance of the Latino vote that for the first time will be the second largest voting block after the white vote. Thirty-two million eligible Latino voters could make a big impact."
When it comes to the showmanship and production value of the conventions, Todd predicts that the DNC may have an advantage over the RNC's team because they committed to that format earlier on.
"I suspect it will feel better-produced," Todd anticipated of the DNC, adding that he suspects Trump may see what the DNC achieves and want to replicate their production. "The Republican party is now scrambling to create a virtual convention, right? After they finally realized they couldn't do North Carolina, they couldn't do Jacksonville, and they are playing catch-up. So I think the challenge that's facing the Republicans is seeing if they can get all of this put together -- they're sort of more last-minute than the Democrats are on this, and I just wonder if the viewer will see that production value deficit."
For now, the prerogative for those providing on-air coverage of these events is to offer as much consistency as this new format will allow. "From my job, it doesn't change much as far as the substance of getting editorial, making sure we're fair to all sides and having representatives from each campaign, and asking tough, fair questions," Baier added. "It's just a matter of where we're doing that."
The Democratic National Convention will take place from Aug. 17-20. The Republican National Convention follows from Aug. 24-27. Find out more about these and other networks' coverage plans right here.