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THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, good afternoon.  Welcome.  My name is Jen McAndrew and I am a media relations officer with the Washington Foreign Press Center and the moderator for today’s on-the-record briefing in our Election 2020 series on understanding the U.S. political party conventions.  Today’s briefer is Dr. Eric Heberlig, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of the book American Cities and the Politics of Party Conventions.   

Today he will provide an overview of the role of political party conventions in the U.S. electoral system and a preview analysis of what’s ahead for the 2020 conventions.  We greatly appreciate Professor Heberlig giving his time today for this briefing. 

And now for the ground rules:  This briefing is on the record and the views of today’s briefer do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.  We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website, which is fpc.state.gov.  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, please share it with us by sending an email to dcfpc@state.gov.  Professor Heberlig will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions.   

If you have a question, please go to the chat box and virtually raise your hand.  At that time, we will unmute you and turn on your video so that you can ask your question.  If you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet.   

And with that, I will pass it over to Professor Heberlig. 

MR HEBERLIG:  Thanks, Jen.  I’m going to address three questions today.  I’ll try to keep it short because I’m more interested in answering the questions that you have, but I think the important things for us to highlight from the beginning are why do we have political conventions in the first place, what are presidential nominating conventions, and what role do they play in our presidential elections.   

Second question is what’s different about the 2020 conventions.  Well, there’s a lot that’s going to be different, and we’ll have to see how that plays out.   

And then the third thing I want to address is my guess is that 2020 is going to serve as a transition point to some new way of doing conventions, so we’ll have to see what works and what doesn’t work this year to have some guidance as to what they might look in 2024, but my suspicion is they’ll be somewhat different than what we’re used to. 

So first question first:  Why do we have these things?  In the United States, we basically have a two-stage election process.  The first stage is the party nomination stage, where the Democratic and Republican Party choose the candidates who are going to appear on the general election ballot that everybody thinks of as the election that occurs in November.  So the 1832 election was the first time the national parties had conventions, because they had to come up with a way of choosing the party candidate.  Andrew Jackson, the general from 1812, was running for president, wanted to reinforce the fact that he was a populist.  He wanted power to be in the hands of the people, so the question was:  How do you select a candidate for a party when you have states who are constitutionally empowered to run the elections in the United States?  How do you come up with a national result out of 50 different state elections? 

So what they did was decided, well, we’ll have a party convention.  We’ll invite delegates from each state to send people to the convention.  Those delegates will get together, decide on a nominee, and then the nominee will represent us on the general election ballot.  So that’s what the parties have basically done since then, with some variations in how precisely they’ve done it. 

The big other change to how conventions occurred occurred in the 1950s with the advent of television.  The parties immediately figured out that this was going to be a great way of communicating to voters all across the country, but the ways they had previously done their conventions were more for entertaining the delegates who were, of course, political activists, and not really to entertain people at home who don’t pay much attention to politics.  So debates over platforms, debates over credentials were fun for delegates but wouldn’t be interesting to watch at home.  So parties significantly shifted the programming of the conventions.  Much more focus was on sending messages visually as well as what the speakers were saying from the podium in order to take advantage of the visual elements of television messaging. 

So that’s really where we’ve been.  The parties put a whole lot effort into controlling the message, both visual and verbal, at the conventions.  They want to show that the party’s unified.  They want to both mobilize their supporters at home, get them out to vote, get them talking to their neighbors, get them to volunteer for the campaign, as well as speak to undecided voters, potentially persuadable swing voters out there.   

Because in many ways the convention serves as kind of the end of the primaries.  The nominee has essentially been decided by the votes of party voters in state primaries and caucuses.  The convention delegates make that official.  They – this is our nominee, this is our vice presidential nominee, we’re going to approve the platform, the issues that the party’s going to run on, but the convention then serves as the transition point into the general election, where the candidate’s no longer talking to party voters but they’re talking to general election voters, who typically are more ideologically moderate, less interested in politics than party activists, so it’s the way the party’s going to introduce its candidate to the general election voters, introduce their campaign themes, introduce their issue priorities in hopes that they can persuade voters through the fall campaign to vote for them in the election. 

So what’s going to be different about 2020?  Well, the big difference is we’re used to these big arena-based rallies, packed with not just the – it’s about 2,500 delegates for the Republicans, about 4,000 delegates for the Democrats, but also packed with media, however many people the fire marshal will let into the city arena.  So typically, it’s close to 20,000 people in the building plus another 20,000 or so people in town for the big event.   

Well, with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to do that – social distancing and so forth – so the parties are not having their big rallies.  They’re doing much of the conventions virtually and they’re figuring out how to do this as we go.  We’ve never had a virtual convention, so this is really unprecedented, and they’re going to be innovating in many ways with how you deliver messages in this new format.  Likewise, the media has never covered virtual conventions before, so they’re going to be figuring out how to cover the conventions.  What we’re used to in terms of TV-centric messaging through the conventions, well, that may not work as well given a Zoom-type platform for a convention.   

So the parties are going to likely try a number of different things.  Speakers are not going to be speaking in front of big crowds, yelling and waving signs, so the dynamics of how they speak is likely to be different because you no longer get ginned up by the excitement of an audience cheering for you.  So it’s not clear how the traditional speeches are going to go and whether they’re going to be delivered with the same level of enthusiasm as what we’re used to. 

So I think this year is likely to be a transition point to new ways of delivering conventions in the future, starting in 2024.  And there’s a couple reasons for that.  The shift to virtual conventions is not well received by the host cities.  Typically, there’s lots of cities that bid for the honor and economic benefits of hosting these big events.  They like – the cities like the direct economic spending that the delegates bring, that the media bring, that these 40,000 visitors bring.  But even more importantly they like the public relations benefits of the convention.  It’s a way to brand themselves, to get the message out about the city to all these viewers who are watching the convention on TV, and not just the domestic audience.  Typically, thousands of international journalists such as yourself also attend the conventions, so cities are able to make themselves known to an international audience who otherwise might have very little reason to know anything about Charlotte, North Carolina or Milwaukee, Wisconsin.   

So this year with the conventions going viral, there is very little activity that’s actually happening in the host cities.  So there’s not going to be thousands of visitors, so they’re not making – the cities aren’t making money on hotels and restaurants and catering and so forth.  And much of the activity is going to be happening with people being piped in virtually, so there’s going to be presumably few shots of the city skyline, few reports on the city itself, fewer reporters trotting around talking to local people on the street.  So the city’s going to leverage much less public relations benefits out of this. 

So Charlotte and Milwaukee have invested lots of time, money, effort into hosting these conventions and are going to get very little direct economic payoff or indirect public relations benefits out of it.  Well, that’s too bad for them this time, but I think the larger implication is that every other city is going to see this.  They see what’s happening to Charlotte and Milwaukee, and when the parties send them a request for proposal for the 2024 convention, the cities are going to say, well, is this really going to be worth it for us?  We saw the parties renege on their commitment to spend all this money in Charlotte and Milwaukee and bring all these visitors, so why should we accept that risk?  Why should we put this effort into it and not get much out of it? 

So we saw after 9/11 increase in security procedures for the convention that increased the disruptions to cities’ normal economic activities.  We saw a big drop in the number of cities who were bidding for conventions after 9/11.  Probably similar dynamics are going to happen going into the 2024 conventions because of the dynamics I’ve just talked about. 

The parties, however, are going to want to go back as closely as possible to the traditional arena-based rallies that we’re used to seeing.  From their perspective, having all their delegates together, all revved up, encouraging the speakers, that makes for great TV, that gets the delegates energized, that gives their politicians a chance to make themselves known nationally to all these party activists.  There’s a whole lot of benefits to the parties in having these traditional rally-based conventions.  And the parties are further advantaged by the fact that the parties aren’t paying for this.  The host city has a committee that basically raises the money from private donors to put on the event for the party.  The federal government picks up some of it.  The federal government basically reimburses the city for security costs, and the media broadcasts the party’s message for free.  So the parties are sharing their infomercial with the public, and they don’t have to pay for any of it.  So it’s in the party’s interests to have everybody else subsidize their advertising.  So they’re going to want to continue to go back to practices prior to the 2020 virtual conventions.   

So I think we’re going to see a lot of tension between cities pulling back and the parties wanting to go forward, and we’re going to have to see how that tension plays out.  So I think where we’re likely to end up in 2024 is the parties and the media are going to kind of figure out based on what they do this year in 2020 what works – so from the parties’ messaging perspective, what elements of their message delivery in a virtual environment they think helped motivate their activists and influenced persuadable voters in the public; from the media’s perspective, what methods of covering the parties got people to tune in and watch or read their coverage of the conventions – and the parties will try to graft on the new methods from this year, the new innovations that seemed to work, and add that to going back as much as they can to their traditional in-person rallies that we’ve done since the beginning of the television era. 

So I think we’re going to see kind of an amalgam, a different variation on the themes as we go into 2024 and the parties figure out what worked and what didn’t about their virtual conventions this year. 

Jen, I’m happy to take questions. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you, Professor.  We will now start the Q&A.  So for those who have questions, please go to the chat box, or the participant box, to virtually raise your hand.  We can also take questions written in the chat box.  I see the first hand raised as Alexis from La Croix, France.  We will now unmute you. 

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you.  Thank you for organizing this briefing.  I had two questions, in fact.  I was wondering if there was a – specifically on the Democratic convention and on Milwaukee, I was wondering if there was any studies on the impact that conventions have on the voting of places where they take place, like cities or states.  And I was – the second question I was wondering is:  Do you think that the fact that the convention, the Democratic convention is spread out this year and will not fully be happening in Milwaukee can hurt in a way or affect the voting that will be happening in Wisconsin for the Democrats?  Thank you. 

MR HEBERLIG:  Sure.  In our book we did a survey of people in Mecklenburg County, which is where Charlotte is, for the 2012 DNC when it was here.  We did find that it made some difference in how people voted, but it was a pretty narrow difference.  It was – for people who relied on or who followed the media coverage of the convention a lot, for Democrats and for independents, it boosted their voting for President Obama’s re-election a little bit.  Usually people are – usually what the parties are more concerned with is whether it boosts turnout among local residents.  And we found that it really didn’t make a difference, that the people who are going to watch a party convention, who are going to follow it, they are pretty interested in politics anyway.  So they’re listening to the message of the convention, it could provide them persuasive messages to vote for the party’s candidate who’s featured at the convention.  But if you’re not interested in politics enough to be sure if you’re going to turn out to vote, you’re probably not going to sit through much of a convention to watch it. 

So from Milwaukee’s perspective, the fact that it’s mostly – the voting influence that we found is mostly driven by the people’s media consumption.  Well, the parties will still be sending their messages out and the media will still be covering it.  I think the question is whether kind of the quality of the message, the quality of the coverage is the same as what we’re used to seeing in the past, whether there’s something about the in-person rally that makes it more enthusiastic or people can engage with it in ways that influence them.  And so I don’t think we have any way of knowing that.  Certainly, the parties hope that they can replicate the same intensity of message that they’ve traditionally done through the rally-based television-centric conventions, but we just don’t know yet. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thank you.  Do we have any other questions?  Please raise your hand or submit them in the chat box.  It looks like I do have one written question that I will read from International Press Syndicate in India.   

The question is: “With so much uncertainty about mail-in ballots and perceived confusion at the post office, do you foresee a delay in election results being announced on November 3rd?”  And that’s from Raj Rangarajan of the International Press Syndicate. 

MR HEBERLIG:  Yeah, we’re likely to see a very significant shift to mail-in vote and absentee votes and other methods of voting that don’t involve showing up in person on Election Day.  That’s going to vary quite a bit from one state to another because states have different rules on different voting options. 

But the states that do allow vote – or vote-by-mail options, you’re going to see a lot more of it this year than we’ve ever seen in the past.  So that means that states probably aren’t going to have the capacity to count all these votes very quickly.  And I think the question in terms of how rapidly they’re able to do it is going to depend a large part on whether the state legislatures make adjustments now; that is, whether they give their boards of elections more money to buy more equipment to process votes, whether they allow their board of elections to start counting votes that have been mailed in early and allow them to count them before the Election Day occurs so that they can focus on counting Election Day ballots and ballots that come in in the mail in the few days afterwards starting on Election Day.  

Having said that, I think there’s a very high probability that we’re going to have to be much more patient than usual this year, that we’re not likely to know by midnight on November 3rd who the president is going to be.  And I think the media’s going to play a very important role in helping set people’s expectations about the fact that it’s going to be a longer period getting the votes counted this year and why that is – because of the pandemic, because of the shift to mail and absentee voting, and to have election night coverage that reinforces that message, that doesn’t try to keep people sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the drama of the announcement because it might not be fair to try to make an announcement by midnight on Eastern Time. 

So the challenges that we’ve seen in a number of states in the primaries in terms of long lines, slow counting of ballots, I think is giving a heads-up to election administrators in terms of what the likely problems are going to be.  So the upside of having those problems a couple months early is that gives them some time to make adjustments, and hopefully we won’t see the severity of the problems that we’ve seen in some states already during the primaries. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I have another question submitted via chat.  This one comes from Charissa Yong from The Straits Times in Singapore.  Her question is: “What can we expect to see from Kamala Harris, Biden’s newly unveiled VP pick, at next week’s Democratic National Convention?  Is this a platform for the Democrats to show what she brings to the Biden-Harris ticket?” 

MR HEBERLIG:  Oh, absolutely, yeah.  The vice-presidential candidate usually has their – well, they always have their own speech.  There’s always a segment of the convention that focuses on introducing them to the voting public, generating excitement about them being on the ticket.  All the delegates vote to approve that person as the party nominee.  So this will very much be an opportunity for Kamala Harris to have the spotlight on her, to speak directly to the American public, to introduce her.  Surely, they’ll have some videos to kind of set up to tell us about her background, her experience, her qualifications in a visually pleasing way that’ll make good television. 

So yeah, I expect she’ll highlight her strengths as a candidate, where she will complement the Biden-Harris ticket, and I think that’ll definitely be a selling point for the Democrats to make use of her skills and allow her to generate excitement among activists and to reach out to persuadable voters who might tune in to learn more about her. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Just a reminder, if you have a question, you can raise your hand virtually in the chat box.  I also have a question that has been submitted via chat.  This is from Bingru Wang at Hong Kong Phoenix TV.  The question is: “DNC has decided to go virtual a long time ago, but RNC has announced it only recently.  Does the format give Democrats more advantages?” 

MR HEBERLIG:  Well, they may have some advantages in that they’ve been planning a virtual convention for a longer period of time, so it gives them more time to plot out what they’re doing, why, figure out the logistics technologically of how to do it.  And a lot of planning traditionally goes into these conventions, so having that time of even an extra month to figure out all these technical aspects could prove to be very important. 

I think the advantage that the Republicans might have in going later is that they get to watch what the Democrats have done and adjust.  They can – the Republicans can see, oh, we think this worked for the Democrats, so we’ll do it and ramp it up a notch to do it one better, or we see that, oh, that didn’t work for the Democrats, so we’re not going to do that.  But at the same time, they have to make those adjustments within about a week, so it doesn’t give them a whole lot of time to do it. 

So at this point, President Trump has not announced where he’s actually giving his acceptance speech from.  We know that the Republicans will essentially have their business meeting in Charlotte, but that’ll be relatively few numbers of people.  Most of the programming for the RNC will be delivered from elsewhere.   

So again, it’s a work in progress and they’re working on it as we speak.   

MODERATOR:  Okay, I see a hand raised from Alex Aliyev from Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan.  We will now unmute you. 

QUESTION:  Thank you, Jen.  This is Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency.  Eric, this might sound a bit off the topic but I do want to follow up with the technology angle that you just were talking about.  Now that we know both parties will hold an almost entirely virtual convention, how vulnerable will they be to potential cyber threats compared to previous elections?  How can folks from both parties work together to fight those threats while protecting democratic principles and values? 

MR HEBERLING:  Yeah, that’s going to be a significant issue.  We learned in the 2020 election about the ability of foreign intervention in just the information that ordinary citizens get in a virtual environment, and the ability to potentially hack into virtual messages the parties are sending out through the convention certainly has to be a huge concern. 

One thing that is typically part of convention planning for the host city is that they’re working with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and those technical security elements are part of the larger security plan that the city and government agencies are putting in place for the convention.  I think the average citizen thinks of the security plan as the fence, the security perimeter around the arena, the thousands of cops that are out there trying to keep protesters at bay.  But there’s a lot of attention given to those type of cybersecurity issues as well, and now that the conventions are going to be almost entirely virtual, that puts much of the security effort into those type of cybersecurity dynamics. 

So those activities were part of the planning anyway.  I’m sure they’ve ramped it up several notches.  But it – that’s going to be one of the key elements in how this plays out and if there is some type of technological interference, that’s going to play a large role in how people evaluate these conventions and what the parties and the media decide to do going forward in 2024. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, I will now take another question from the chat box, which is related to the previous.  The question is from Zhaoyin Feng from the BBC Chinese News Service.  The question is: “President Trump suggested that he may make his acceptance speech from the White House.  Is there any precedent of a major party presidential nominee delivering the speech at sites of national importance outside of the convention?  How do you expect the choice of location to change the dynamics?” 

MR HEBERLING:  For many years, presidents did not actually physically appear at the convention to give an acceptance speech.  I think Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first one to do it.  Traditionally in the United States, it was seen as kind of beneath the office to, quote/unquote, campaign.  Even nonincumbent candidates for almost half our history, you didn’t campaign, or at least you didn’t – you weren’t seen as going out there and asking people to vote for you.  The norm was that you stayed on your front porch and the media came to you and you would say things, but you didn’t talk about policy, you didn’t ask for votes directly.  You had your surrogates and members of the political party that would do that.  So certainly, you didn’t have anything in that era that would be seen as crossing any ethical lines in terms of campaigning.  

Since Roosevelt gave his address, I think he did it one year by radio during World War II so he could highlight the fact that, “Oh, I’m a war leader, I have these important responsibilities of the presidency, I’m – I can’t be bothered with politics,” which of course just reminded people that, well, we’re in a war; it might not be a good idea to vote out the president in the middle of World War II.  So he wasn’t exactly doing it for reasons that were purely policy-related. 

Other than that, it’s been speeches at the convention where they gave their acceptance speeches.  The only other variation on that was in 2008, when Barack Obama was the nominee for the Democrats, he had his acceptance speech not in the arena where the rest of the convention was held; he went out to the Denver Broncos football stadium to invite the public to show up and he gave the acceptance speech in this much larger venue, and that of course generated lots of additional excitement and enthusiasm and helped signify the new populist nature of his candidacy. 

So we haven’t seen acceptance speeches from the White House or military battlefields or the Statue of Liberty or anything like that.  The legal limitations are that you’re not supposed to be using government facilities for campaign events, but I think for the public, they’re used to seeing presidents give speeches that are official government business that sound pretty much like campaign speeches to the viewer or the listener, so I doubt they’re going to get too tied up in the fact that, well, this may not be a proper place or time to be giving a campaign speech. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you.  I’d now like to call on Abdelrahman Youssef from Al-Modon.  We will now unmute you. 

QUESTION:   Hello, my name is Abdelrahman Youssef.  Thank you for this informative session.  Like, my question is about – it’s like a hypothetical situation.  What is the mechanism or rules of – for choosing the – another nominee or another candidate if, like, before the convention or, like, after the convention but before the election if, like, Biden or Trump, for any reason, couldn’t run for the – for the – for the election, the main elections?  Is there any mechanism or rules?  What – like, which one, like, that both party can choose?  Is this – in this situation it’s, like, Harris or, like, Sanders because he’s, like, number two in the primary polling?  And, like, what is the mechanism if one of the two main candidates can’t run before the election or before the conventions? 

MR HEBERLING:  That’s a good question.  I do not know off the top of my head.  Each of the parties do have rules on those type of situations that would specify how that plays out if the person who received the most delegates pledged to them in the state elections for whatever reason would not be able to fulfill the duties.  Likewise, I suspect they also have rules that would say what the party would do if the presidential nominee after the convention is unable to continue as candidate.  I just don’t know off the top of my head what those rules are. 

QUESTION:  Okay, thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, do we have any other questions?  Please virtually raise your hand or submit it in the chat box.   

In the meantime, while we’re waiting for another question, I might ask you, Professor, if you could elaborate on – I think the DNC has announced all of their speakers.  The RNC is still yet to.  But what makes an effective surrogate speaking on behalf of the candidates?  I know past conventions have been a launching pad for many different political stars to rise, and who are you looking for next week that’s going to be an exciting speaker? 

MR HEBERLIG:  I think the good surrogates are the ones who have a good personal story that they can integrate into their promotion of the party’s candidate, because what the party is concerned about is that each speaker in some way promotes the themes of the convention, that there’s basically talking points that the party develops ahead of time that they want repeated throughout the convention so that whenever a citizen tunes in, or for however long that citizen stays tuned in, that person at least hears the talking points, those key themes and messages at least once. 

But if each speaker just repeats the talking points, that’s going to get pretty boring and pretty tiring pretty quickly, so it’s an issue of how creative each speaker is in finding interesting ways of portraying those same themes without just repeating the talking points.   

So the convention speeches that we’ve seen in the past that have drawn a lot of attention are those that kind of effectively connect the specific party priorities message from this particular election to the larger themes of the party historically, to the larger themes of American history, make the themes relevant to the ordinary people who are listening in to tell them why this candidate, why this party in this election is the right choice.   

And certainly, candidates who can speak with dynamism, with charisma, who are able to react rhetorically with the enthusiastic delegates in a hall, those are the speeches that are much more memorable.   

And often things that are memorable about the convention aren’t actually quotes that anybody says.  The 2000 convention comes to example for the Democrats.  Al Gore, the vice president, was the Democrats’ nominee.  His image was being very formal, very stiff.  And one of the memorable events from the 2000 convention was when his wife came on the stage, he gave her a long, passionate kiss.  And everybody remembered that because it seemed so out of character for Al Gore.  

So – and I think it was the 2012 Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood bringing up an empty chair and speaking to the empty chair and nobody knew or quite understood what he was doing, he was speaking to this empty chair which represented President Obama.  But again, that presentation that no one expected, that became one of the memories of the convention because it was so over the top, so unusual.  In some ways, those type of things can kind of blot out the intended message of the convention. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I have another question submitted via chat.  This one is from Yuliya Olhovskaya from Channel One Russian TV.  The question is: “Whether we can trust national polls at this point.  Before 2016, most of them were wrong.  So have polling centers changed technology to reduce possibility of mistakes?” 

MR HEBERLIG:  I could quibble and say that well, many of them were wrong, but the – that the key results were wrong particularly in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.  Those state polls were clearly off.  But yes, pollsters put a lot of effort into figuring out why the polls were off in 2016 and making adjustments to try to prevent that from happening again.  Remember, these pollsters, this is their business; they don’t get contracts from businesses or campaigns if they can’t show that they’re accurate.   

So I think two key things they’ve done to correct for the type of errors they found in 2016:  One is they found that the respondent’s level of education made a greater difference in 2016 than it usually did in terms of voting impact, so they changed the way they weight or kind of count each person’s response to make sure that the people with various demographic characteristics who respond to the poll match what the electorate is likely to look like.   

And the underlying issue here is that in a public opinion poll, usually we’re trying to get a random sample; that is, every person in the population has an equal probability of participating.  But in elections, it’s only a subset of the population that actually shows up to vote.  So if you’re using the poll to predict an election outcome, you need to only count the type of people who are likely to show up to vote.  So the challenge is, is figuring out which of your poll respondents are likely to do that.  Because if you ask people directly, “Are you going to vote,” many people will say yes, because that’s the socially desirable response, even if they’re not going to vote.  So what pollsters have to do is use basically the characteristics of the people who showed up in the last election to predict which of the respondents are likely to show up in this election. 

Yet the challenge is one of the things that campaigns are trying to do is to change the electorate to bring in more people who they think will vote for them.  And that’s another reason that the polls were wrong in 2016 was because rural voters showed up at higher levels in 2016 than they had in the past, and they overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump; whereas younger voters and minority voters who had showed up in 2008 and 2012 to vote for Barack Obama didn’t show up at those previous levels.  So the weighting of the polls prior to the election was not an accurate reflection of who actually showed up to vote. 

The final element of what made the polls wrong in 2016 isn’t something that pollsters can do much about, which is that in 2016, the people who decided at the very last minute overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.  So it’s hard to predict how those late-breaking voters are going to end up voting, whether they’re going to split pretty evenly between the candidates or whether they’re all going to flock in one direction in a similar way that they did in 2016.  Usually what happens is that voters who are undecided at the very end tend to break against the incumbent, and the reason for that is that they’ve had four years of experience with a presidential candidate – or with a president performing in office.  They know what they’ve done.  They know the president’s style.  They’ve watched their commercials and advertising for several months, and if they’re still not sold on them by the last couple days of the campaign, they have enough doubts that they’re willing to risk voting for the alternative.   

MODERATOR:  Okay.  I have two more questions submitted via the chat box, and as we’re coming to the end of our time, we probably do not have further – time for further questions.  The first of these is from Ville Hupa from Finnish Broadcasting.  The question is: “Do you predict an election bump to the parties after their respective conventions this year, seeing the conventions are all virtual and might not attract audience in the same way?” 

MR HEBERLIG:  Typically, what the candidates and the media look for after campaigns is whether there’s an increase in support in public opinion polls.  Usually it’s pretty small; it’s three to five points.  I think more relevant for the campaigns is not really the size of the bump but how long the bump is sustained after the convention.  Typically, when you get a bump in the public opinion polls, it – after the convention it doesn’t last for very long, so one – or one party has its convention, gets a little bump, then the next party has its convention that wipes out the bump of the first convention, and we kind of end up back to where we were before.  I agree with the – with your question.  I think going virtual this time is likely to dampen any shift in the polls.   

I think just given the context of this election – we’ve seen President Trump’s approval ratings across his presidency being much more stable than they have been for other presidents.  The public hasn’t reacted very much to changes in the economy, to external events during the – or since the beginning of the pandemic.  And the protests after the George Floyd killing, we’ve seen some movement but that’s really notable just because there’s been any movement at all, not really because of the magnitude of the movement in response to those very significant changes in American society.  So I think given the context that people already have very strong and polarized opinions about Donald Trump, and the fact that the probably messaging power of the conventions is going to be less than usual, I don’t expect much bump for either party after the conventions, and whatever bump they get I doubt is going to be sustained for very long. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  And our last question is from Todd Prince from Radio Free Europe:  “As someone who has followed, studied conventions, what are the one or two things you are most interested in observing at the DNC?  What will you be looking out for?” 

MR HEBERLIG:  I think the thing I will be most interested in is how innovative they are in terms of changing the content of their programming.  How dependent do they remain on big-name speakers from the party to give those kind of traditional convention speeches?  Or how much do they stick with the traditional messengers but try to say something new and different or present their information in a different way that might work better virtually than from an arena stage – whether they come up with other ways beyond speakers or videos of trying to convey their message to try to adapt to this new environment?  So I’ll be looking for how they attempt to innovate what they see as ways of taking advantage of this new method of communicating with the American public. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Do we have any final questions?  Please raise your hand virtually or submit in the chat box.  We’ll just give it one or two minutes.  Okay, we have a follow-up question from Alex with Turan News Agency.  We will unmute you, and this will be our final question. 

QUESTION:  Thank you so much, Jen.  Again, this is Alex from Azerbaijan’s Turan News Agency.  Professor, I’m curious if you have ever entertained such an idea that a sitting official, let it be a president or a Congress member or a senator, loses the election but refuses to vacate the office.  I know this is a very farfetched question but given many of us coming from, it is very likely, abroad.  Thank you. 

MR HEBERLIG:  Certainly President Trump in the 2016 election was asked in one of the debates whether he would concede the election when the votes were counted if he was behind, and he gave a “Well, stay tuned” type answer which is consistent with his desire for drama and kind of the reality show TV approach he takes to some things, and has given similar answers in this campaign when he’s been asked about it.  I think – and certainly there’s been a lot of media speculation here in the United States about that very issue – President Trump is going to do whatever President Trump is going to do.  I think the key on how that plays out is really what other leaders of the Republican Party do if President Trump contests the results of the election or claims fraud.  In particular, I think it’s key what Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate, does, and Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, does.  If they speak out and other Republican Party leaders speak out and say no, the votes have been cast, the process was fair and we lost, we have to accept that, I think that will go a long way in encouraging other Republicans, officials, to speak up, to legitimize the result of the election, and to reassure Republican voters that the election was conducted fairly and accurately.   

If those Republican leaders basically stand up for Trump and question the accuracy and legitimacy of the results, then we have a very difficult problem on our hands because there needs to be some way of reassuring the American public that the results are what they appear to be and that there’s a legitimate transfer of power.  I think for the public, responding to all that speculation at this point is – it’s just that, it’s speculation.  I don’t think there’s a whole lot of value in worrying about it at this point because there’s nothing any of us can do about that.  I think for elected officials and party officials, they need to think through seriously what they’re going to do in that situation and have plans made out to think through the long-term implications for the stability of our political system should the President or others attempt to contest the election results.   

MODERATOR:  Okay.  That concludes our briefing today on the party conventions.  On behalf of the Washington Foreign Press Center, I want to thank Professor Heberlig for giving your time, and to all of our participants for your questions.  Good afternoon.  

U.S. Department of State

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