Robert Gibbs had just woken up when his boss called. It was about 6 a.m., and Barack Obama, who was not normally a morning person, had written yet another draft of his keynote speech for the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Obama wanted to know what Gibbs, who had recently joined his campaign for the U.S. Senate, thought. After sheepishly admitting that he had not read his boss’s latest effort, Gibbs checked his email. Obama had sent his revisions at 2:30 a.m.
A few weeks later, the “skinny kid with the funny name” took the stage at TD Garden in Boston. He was still a relative unknown, but he knew what a keynote address at the convention meant: a platform to introduce himself to America, to tie his story up in the broader American story. “He knew this had to be deeply personal; this wasn’t going to be something that somebody put three-quarters of the way finished in front of him,” Gibbs told me earlier this week. If not for that speech, several of Obama’s Senate-campaign staffers told me, Obama likely would not have been elected president in 2008.
On Tuesday night, the second night of this year’s Democratic National Convention, 17 Democrats—the party’s rising stars from across the country, including Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Raumesh Akbari of Tennessee, Malcolm Kenyatta of Pennsylvania, and Randall Woodfin of Alabama—delivered a joint keynote video address. After a brief montage of great speeches past—Daniel Inouye in 1968, Barbara Jordan in 1976, Obama in 2004—the group attempted to render a narrative of a better America.
For a convention built for sound bites, the speech was ideal. Each person the DNC chose to highlight represented a unique part of the party’s future. It was faster-paced than speeches of years past, which likely made it easier for viewers to digest. But it lacked cadence—the rhythm that comes when someone is telling their own story, not someone else’s. “That kind of rapid fire might make it harder for people to get excited,” Aaron Weinschenk, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay who studies how people react to political conventions, told me.
Convention-watching breaks down along party lines. Democrats watch the Democratic convention; Republicans watch the Republican convention. The role of a convention keynote like Obama’s is to elevate the keynoter’s status in the party. With barely enough time to introduce themselves, the young Democrats highlighted Tuesday had a slim chance of making a real impression.
There are ways in which a crowdless convention can be more entertaining than an in-person one. After the keynoters spoke, the Democrats took convention-watchers on a virtual tour across America, with representatives from each state announcing their delegate counts and offering a bit of regional flavor. Representative Terri Sewell spoke in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Khizr Khan, the gold-star father who sparred with then-nominee Donald Trump, spoke from Charlottesville, Virginia. State Representative Joseph McNamara stood in front of the ocean and alongside a plate of calamari to explain how the coronavirus pandemic has decimated the fishing industry in the “calamari comeback” state of Rhode Island. But there are other ways in which a pandemic convention falls flat. “As great a speech as that was [in 2004], the thing that put it over the top was the reaction in the room,” David Axelrod, who ran Obama’s 2004 campaign, told me. That’s lost without a crowd. “You almost have to be robotic,” Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, told me.
Some crowdless, intimate speeches do connect, though; some are memorable. Democrats lauded former first lady Michelle Obama for her Monday-night address. It was as if she was speaking directly to you, they said.
By refusing to trust any single rising star with a prime speaking spot, convention organizers denied all of them the opportunity to try to match Barack Obama’s 2004 performance, or Michelle Obama’s this year. But Democrats aren’t giving up entirely on highlighting someone party elders believe could be the next president—Biden’s bridge to the next generation. On Wednesday night, Senator Kamala Harris “will walk to that podium being thought of as something different than she was at any point in her presidential campaign,” Gibbs told me. “It’s a real reintroduction for her, so that people can begin to think differently about who she is and what she and Vice President Biden want to do.”
And if Biden wins in November, it won’t be one of the 17 Tuesday-night keynoters who’s best positioned to be the next Democratic nominee for president. It will be Harris.