For months, President Trump has insisted that the Republican National Convention would occur as usual. It would be a big, festive celebration of his achievements, packed in an arena where delegates, party officials, and thousands of Trump cheerleaders would applaud the President as he made a nationally-televised speech.
But when Roy Cooper, the Democratic governor of North Carolina, showed a hesitance to allow the massive gathering in Charlotte due to coronavirus fears, Trump took to Twitter. He denigrated the governor and announced plans to move the convention to Jacksonville, Florida. The President wanted his pep rally, and his ally, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was happy to host.
But this Thursday, as cases of coronavirus continue to surge in the Sunshine State, Trump abruptly announced that the convention would not be happening. “We won’t do a big, crowded convention, per se,” Trump conceded to reporters. “It’s not the right time for that.”
The saga of the Republican National Committee had already worried donors for months. According to The Washington Post, the convention’s Jacksonville budget was to be between $10 million and $20 million. Additionally, organizers would have to spend on COVID-19 safety measures and heightened security, as there would almost certainly be protesters outside the arena. Some even suspected the National Guard would be called to protect the stadium.
On Thursday, the planning committee was still assessing whether donors who had already contributed to this immense budget would be able to get their money back. Full reimbursement looks unlikely.
Still, raising all of that money had been a difficult task. Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said that many donors didn’t want to invest at all, because they didn’t think the event would end up happening.
A major reason Trump was so eager to move the convention from Charlotte to Jacksonville was the optics. As the Democratic National Convention announced a mostly-virtual approach in lieu of its previously-planned summit in Milwaukee, Trump wanted to best his rivals with a big, lavish celebration. So when North Carolina Governor Cooper said that attendees would have to wear masks and physically distance, the President could not get on board. After all, his strategy for months had been to downplay the effects of the pandemic. That meant he would have to hold a convention as big and exciting as his 2016 campaign.
But avoiding the crisis has now become impossible, even for a spin-master like President Trump. This week, he advocated for the use of face masks for the first time since the CDC made the recommendation in April. Now, as his Democratic rival Joe Biden continues to lead him in polls, and as the coronavirus continues to be the number-one issue for the majority of voters, the image of a packed arena full of uncovered faces doesn’t look as grand as Trump once imagined.
Still, the decision to cancel the convention speaks to the immense challenge of presidential campaigning in 2020. In-person rallies, cross-country stumping, and state fair kibitzing have no place in the coronavirus era. As Trump’s dismal attempt at a rally in Tulsa proved back in June, this year’s election will depend almost entirely on the candidates’ digital efforts. And while both major candidates still plan to make a nomination speech, this year, they will have to make those speeches online.