As with so many events in America this year, public expectations around the 2020 political conventions were muted. And yet, both parties approached their conventions with outsize ambition. 

Last week’s all-virtual Democratic convention was generally well received. The event showcased a diverse but unified party, and the crisp, passionate speech delivered by former Vice President Joe Biden provided party members with a reason to exhale. In other historical periods, this would have been enough, but Democrats are worried, and many observers believe they will need a landslide to defeat President Donald Trump.

Republicans held on to the hope for an in-person convention longer than the Democrats did, and as a result, they were left with less time to plan and produce the event, which began on Monday. However, Trump and his 2020 campaign operation are well-versed in the virtual medium, and there is an advantage in going second. Trump criticised the Democrats in real-time on Twitter last week, and summed up the Democrats’ event as “the darkest and angriest convention in American history”, arguing that Democrats “spent four days attacking America as racist and a horrible country that must be redeemed”.

The first night of the Republican convention felt like a remix of Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law and order/silent majority” convention and Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” TV commercial.

Trump and his convention organisers promised a more upbeat and uplifting Republican convention. But President Trump enters this final lap of the campaign with high disapproval numbers and needs the convention to help him define 2020 as a choice rather than a referendum. Trump’s natural impulse is to define that choice through personal attacks and fearmongering. That impulse is likely to dominate the Republican convention, given that the party declined to adopt a new policy platform for 2020 (other than asserting their enthusiastic support for the president and his agenda).

The first night of the Republican convention felt like a remix of Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law and order/silent majority” convention and Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” TV commercial. The President’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, provided the party faithful with a warning that the election is “shaping up to be church, work, school versus rioting, looting and vandalism – or, in the words of Biden and the Democrats, ‘peaceful protesting’”. Trump Jr’s girlfriend and former Fox News host Kimberley Guilfoyle claimed that Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, “… and their socialist comrades … want open borders, closed schools, dangerous amnesty and will selfishly send your jobs back to China, while they get rich”.

Donald Trump Jr (right) watches his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle onscreen as she pre-records her address to the Republican National Convention, 24 August 2020 in Washington (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Republicans also offered a response to the charges levelled against the president throughout the Democratic convention, namely that Trump is incapable of fulfilling the duties of an American president and doesn’t care about anyone but himself.

Monday night featured Trump in a discussion with front-line workers, a parade of positive testimonials about how the Administration responded to the pandemic, and stories from Trump political allies such as Representatives Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise, who were personally comforted by Trump during difficult times. This effort to soften Trump’s public persona and to rewrite the story of his response to the pandemic felt especially awkward. Trump has been in the public eye for decades – it’s difficult to conjure up a “kinder, gentler” Trump. More importantly, only 30% of Americans feel comfortable with the way Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

The most compelling testimony of the night came from the two Republican leaders from South Carolina with diverse backgrounds: former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott. Both spoke about their personal stories and the promise of America. Scott highlighted the Trump administration’s work on criminal justice reform, an important accomplishment in the current political environment.

Trump’s campaign faces the same uncertainties as the Democrats as far as voting during a pandemic, and Trump's efforts to undercut the US Post Office and cast doubt on the legality of mail-in voting are likely to hurt Republican and Democratic voters alike.

In addition to party business and formal nominations, the conventions generally serve as an opportunity for political parties to offer their loyal supporters some love and affirmation and a sense of common purpose. But this year, Democrats and Republicans both believe they need more than party unity – they need the conventions to prompt greater political participation among their supporters.

On the Democratic side, the progressive and moderate wings of the party are united in a way that they weren’t in 2016. The inclusion of respected Republican figures in the convention, such as former Ohio Governor John Kasich, General Colin Powell and Cindy McCain, widow of late Senator John McCain, offered a safe opening for rank-and-file Republicans to cross over and vote for Biden this time.

But the logistics of casting a ballot for the Democratic candidate are complicated by the pandemic, long-time voter-suppression tactics focused on communities of colour, and disinformation campaigns (domestic and international). Nearly all the speakers at the Democratic convention worked to persuade people to treat voting like a sacred duty. Former First Lady Michelle Obama explicitly told Democrats to vote in person if they can, because there is a concerted effort underway to keep them from voting.

Trump’s campaign faces the same uncertainties as the Democrats as far as voting during a pandemic, and Trump's efforts to undercut the US Post Office and cast doubt on the legality of mail-in voting are likely to hurt Republican and Democratic voters alike. But these efforts have always been more about undermining the legitimacy of the election, which some suspect is Trump’s backup plan for remaining in power. 

In terms of winning outright, Trump can only work within the confines of the base that he has nurtured, which puts him in a precarious position. A political strategy that rejects unifying themes is not entirely crazy, but it’s definitely risky.

The best opportunity for the Trump campaign to pick up support resides with white working-class Americans in battleground states who did not vote last time. This pool of non-voters is significant. However, the last time they contributed meaningfully to a Republican victory was when they came out in 2004 for George W. Bush. Karl Rove, the strategist behind Bush’s 2004 victory, suggested that these voters are an opportunity for Trump if he can avoid alienating others and develop a unifying message.  

That goal seems ambitious.