Yoga Pants, Trump Wine and Zoom Talent Shows: What The Delegates Are Doing Without ConventionsAugust 18, 2020
The Democratic and Republican national conventions typically involve thousands of people, from operatives to reporters to celebrities, in massive arenas filled with balloons, streamers, cameras, political posters, patriotic outfits and funny hats. Applause echoes off the walls. The host city buzzes with the unmistakable energy of a place that, for four days, is the center of the political and media universe. And at the heart of the operation are the delegates, many of them party loyalists given a chance to officially vote for their nominees. In the hallways, they stop for selfies with politicians, or exchange pins or business cards.
Not this year.
In the middle of a pandemic that makes any kind of gathering dangerous, both parties scratched their big plans and went, largely, virtual. Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, will be giving his acceptance speech from his home state of Delaware. President Donald Trump’s plans are still unclear, though he has suggested he might speak from the White House. As for the delegates, they’ll mostly be tuning in from home, like the rest of us. The DNC instructed delegates not to travel to Milwaukee, Wis., and the RNC invited just a few hundred of them to a pared-down event in Charlotte, N.C. Otherwise, delegates will be left to figure out for themselves how to celebrate what was supposed to be the dizzying, energetic high point of the four-year election cycle.
So what will the convention look like for them? To find out, POLITICO Magazine contacted more than a dozen delegates to both conventions—Democrats and Republicans, first-timers and veterans, from around the country—and asked them how they were handling this new American experiment. We also asked them to send us photos of the spaces where they plan to watch. Some are skipping the fanfare entirely; some are holding small, socially distanced gatherings, and others are letting their political nerd flags fly, suiting up with patriotic outfits or decorations. Most admitted they will miss, as one delegate put it, “sharing the anticipation of victory with so many like-minded people.”
In preparation of her at-home convention experience, Engstrom has decked out her living room with red, white and blue, including an American flag and signs reading “Joe Biden for President.” Her dog Bella wears a flag bandanna around her neck, too. Engstrom plans to keep the decorations up until January 2021 for the inauguration of—she hopes—Joe Biden.
For Biden, she’s willing to start her days early during the conventions, since some caucus activities begin at 7 a.m. her time. She says she’s particularly excited to watch up-and-coming politicians’ convention speeches this year. “This country has had so much pain and loss this year, I feel it’s the upcoming young men and women, from every walk of life, that will surprise us most with their shining examples of leadership, heroism and words of hope,” she says.
Delegates from Hawaii usually wear traditional aloha attire with fresh flower leis, including extras to give out to delegates from other states. And as the Hawaii delegation chairman, Frenzel plans to dress the part even during a pandemic.
He was wearing that very outfit in 2016, when he first saw Trump at the RNC. Frenzel recalls the skepticism many delegates had until the moment Trump officially was nominated. “It was just so spectacular to have the president unite the delegates from across the country in 2016—many who came to nominate another candidate and got won over by President Trump’s message, his strength and charismatic leadership,” Frenzel says.
He secretly hopes Trump will still make a surprise visit to Charlotte, where Frenzel and a small group of GOP delegates are gathering.
Golden first met Biden during the 1976 convention, when he was a law student from the Mississippi delegation and Biden was a Delaware senator in his first term. Both were floor managers for Jimmy Carter. “My first impression of Joe was his warm smile, firm handshake (remember those?!) and easy manner—same then as now,” Golden says. Forty-four years later, he plans to vote for Biden as the next U.S. president.
Watching the DNC livestream from home has its own perks, Golden says: wearing more casual clothes and saving on travel expenses. He says he’ll miss the feeling of anticipation and the gathering of like-minded people. “My DNC experiences going back to the 1970s are a significant part of the fabric of my adult life,” he says. “My mother would no doubt be very proud!”
As a recent stage four cancer survivor, Albrecht says he takes his safety seriously. So he plans to stay in his living room to celebrate the conventions, away from other delegates. His watch party will be small: His parents will likely heckle the speeches, and his boyfriend will grudgingly sit by his side.
“No matter who I am with, I’ll likely be standing up, cheering, and chanting statements like ‘Gays for Trump,’ ‘Build the Wall’ and other accoutrements of Republican patriotism,” he says. “I plan on having all of my Trump gear available for my party of one!”
Albrecht is particularly disappointed to be missing the tradition of swapping pins with delegates from other states. He hopes to send emojis to fellow delegates instead.
Devang and Bianca Shah will spend their first convention together as a father-daughter pair in the den of their house, on opposite ends of their sofa, both sporting pins collected over years of civic engagement. (Devang is the Maryland Democratic Party’s Asian American and Pacific Islander chair, and Bianca is leading youth outreach for South Asians for Joe Biden’s campaign.)
Devang, who attended the 2016 Democratic convention as a guest, says he’ll miss the opportunity to hear the thunderous crowd after a great speech. “I still feel the goose bumps and hear the roar from being in the convention hall in 2016 when Michelle Obama stated, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ or from the speech of previously unknown Khizr Khan,” he says.
Instead, the Shahs will attend some of the virtual events hosted by the Maryland state party, such as Zoom speed networking, online watch parties, a trivia night and even a talent show. “It [remains] to be seen how much we can replicate the networking and enjoyment of an in-person convention,” Devang says. “This may be the historical start of a new age of political conventions.”
Reid has been a Trump supporter since 2015—and has the outfit to prove it. During the 2016 Repubilcan National Convention in Cleveland, he dressed up as the future president, complete with a wig, blue suit and red tie. The costume was “quite a hoot,” Reid says. “It was fun seeing the outfits from the other delegations … the Texas delegation in particular with the cowboy outfits, and the Washington State delegates with little foam rubber tree hats.”
This time around, he expects he’ll be rooting for Trump’s reelection by himself, wearing what he usually does as an Orthodox Jew: a black hat, black coat, slacks and tzitzit. Reid says months of video calls with friends and Torah study via Zoom have prepared him for a virtual convention. Still, thinking of the outfits, he says, “It’s a shame the RNC did not arrange for each delegation to meet in their own state and then use Zoom to do the Call of the States.”
Joseph has always seen the Democratic convention as a place where she can celebrate fellow Native Americans in politics: “It is time to meet with Native delegates and other Democrats who are working to improve public policy and federal programs serving all Americans. Plus, it is just a lot of fun.”
Over the past two decades, Joseph has worked to increase the number of Native American delegates at the DNC. In 1988, when she attended the convention as a supporting Senate staff member, there were only 35 Native American delegates, and the group didn’t have its own caucus. She pledged to double that number by the next convention. In 1992, 56 Native American delegates formed their own caucus. By 2016, the Native American caucus had 225 members.
This year, Joseph is trying to bring the festivity to her own house, where she plans to host a watch party that will double as a fundraiser for Biden and local candidates. She’ll sport her signature business casual look with a “Native flair,” as she describes it—including beaded earrings decorated with blue stars in the hope that Biden can turn the White House blue.
There aren’t many upsides to a pandemic—but for the conventions Crowley plans to invite friends over, make food and celebrate each night like it’s the Super Bowl. She also set up her small home theater to serve as a makeshift office for the convention. And now she can wear yoga pants and slippers with her Trump merchandise, instead of high heels and skirts.
“Honestly, after having our state convention virtually, and the constant craziness in the nation, nothing really seems weird to me,” she says. “I guess I’m just rolling with the situation and trying to find a bright side when I can.”
Representing the people of Utah in what she calls the most important election of her adult life is a privilege she does not take lightly, she says. Her only qualm is that she won’t get to see Trump invigorate the crowd, she says. “This situation doesn’t change my desire to be a delegate, or my support,” she adds. “This has definitely not broken my spirit.”
Duke, a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter, was looking forward to the opportunity to push for progressive causes at the DNC. But he has been disappointed by the national party’s communication and what he describes as efforts to downplay voices on the left in the convention.
“This changes the way I think about being a delegate by convincing me that my role of a delegate is to speak up and speak out as much as I can within a system that seeks to silence me and treat me like a prop,” he says.
Duke says he’s trying to make the most of the situation by being active in delegate social media groups. He plans to attend virtual and in-person events for the convention, including a drive-in meetup with fellow delegates in Boston, where he’ll wear a mask and keep 6 feet of distance from others while the convention programming is projected on-screen.
Bowie-Whitman’s first convention as a delegate was in 1972, when President Richard Nixon was nominated for his second term, and 3,000 anti-war protesters crashed the event, some of them destroying the car she had traveled in.
Her second convention, 2020, comes with the drama of a global pandemic. Although the convention is virtual this year, she is one of the 336 delegates who will gather in Charlotte, as part of the downsized convention. Bowie-Whitman—who is adding an elephant-pattern mask to her wardrobe for the event—expects the strangest part will be daily Covid health checks.
“This one will be small, staid and safe, and with no big parties,” she says. “It will be businesslike, but I suspect there will be great fellowship among our small group, who are grateful to be there against all odds.”
Like many students, Levinson had his life at American University upended by the pandemic. Classes are now hybrid online and in-person. And with dorms housing fewer people, Levinson will be watching the conventions from his off-campus house. He’s not thrilled about the online format.
“The Zoom fatigue is real,” he says. “Sitting at screens the whole time as it has throughout the pandemic has made me tired so I am hoping the excitement of the convention and its speakers will keep me going!”
Every morning of the conventions will begin with a virtual breakfast with his fellow Pennsylvania delegates, followed by online get-togethers with delegations from all over the country. To replicate the chatter of in-person conventions, Levinson says he’ll be glued to social media. He’s still figuring out the ins and outs of the convention process, which he finds particularly hard to learn online, but he says he’s hoping to stay in contact online with senior delegates, so that he won’t miss any important information.
As a North Carolina delegate who lives 30 minutes outside Charlotte, Buckner was well-positioned to experience the excitement of a convention on his home turf. “This is my first presidential election,” he says, “and I wish I was able to complete the trifecta in person: Elect Trump in the primary, nominate him at our convention and elect him for four more years in November.”
While he says he is “saddened” that the convention won’t be held in its usual format, he will still volunteer for a day in Charlotte to help the smaller event run smoothly. And other delegates will gather in small groups across the state for watch parties to create camaraderie, he says. Buckner plans to wear a seersucker suit, as North Carolina delegates usually do for their group photos, as well as a “Dan Forest for Governor” mask.
Banat became involved in politics in 2016, his freshman year of high school. Four years later, he’s one of the youngest Democratic delegates, with stints working for a couple of campaigns on his résumé. He plans to wear T-shirts from these campaigns on different days of the convention because he says the experiences taught him the power of grassroots organizing. Banat, who founded the Minnesota High School Democrats, also plans to wear a High School Democrats of America T-shirt as a “memory of something I was a part of in this party.”
Banat says he’s disappointed that his first convention as a young delegate will be virtual but believes the party took necessary measures to protect delegates and the people of Milwaukee. He’ll be keeping those safety measures in mind as he attends an outdoor, socially distanced watch party with his fellow Minnesota delegates to watch Biden’s nomination.
Brown says she and her mother will be drinking Trump sparkling wine during the convention to keep excitement alive at home. She is also planning a small watch party with her family and young Republicans from her area.
The festivities, however, won’t extend much beyond that. “I do understand with the uncertainty of what 2020’s unusual circumstances have brought that the president and RNC likely didn’t have much of a choice to cancel,” she says. “The media would have unfairly portrayed the gathering as a hazard to the attendees’ and the town’s health if it had been in person.”
Alam has always graced the conventions wearing an elegant sari. She says her outfits, which have patriotic American motifs, often end up attracting the attention of other delegates and the media. Even if she’s watching from her own home this year, she plans to continue the tradition—this time wearing a sari with decorations inspired by the American flag.
In the middle of a pandemic, and an administration she says has failed to handle it properly, she sees her role as a delegate as more important than ever. “This is going to be the most consequential election in our lifetime,” she says. “Our presence, whether in person or digital, is necessary to show our voters, supporters and donors that we are focusing on what is right under this unprecedented time and situation.”