Before the contemporary system of primaries to select party nominees for the US president was established, party conventions played an important role as arenas of political jostling over the party platform and a struggle for influence over who would eventually secure the party nomination. It was not rare to see upsets in the final tallies or ballots extending to the 46th round, as was the case in 1912 when Woodrow Wilson finally won the required two-thirds vote.
While recent party primaries haven't been devoid of dramas and rancour - one only has to revisit the 2016 campaign - the conventions have become more of a spectacle with a predetermined outcome rather than events of great substance. If there was any room for surprises this year, it was surrounding the messages and messengers each campaign would deploy as they headed into the final two months of the election cycle.
The 2020 party conventions were going to be unique in many ways, even if it wasn't for the pandemic which made most of the programming virtual and in-person events awkward or downright dangerous. From having the oldest candidates ever to be nominated by major parties to the symbolism of the first woman of minority background as a vice-presidential nominee, the history would certainly be written.
Yet what was particularly stark about this year's conventions is the extent to which they have looked like a split-screen America. One in which there was a deadly pandemic, recession of historical proportions and widespread protests over racial injustice with a president unable and unwilling to act. And another, where these conditions and events were portrayed either as a thing of the past, or as disturbances that only the incumbent is capable of resolving.
This battle of narratives is only poised to intensify, while the opinion polls that will emerge over the next couple of weeks will tell us whether the conventions have been able to move the needle in support of either candidate. Granted, both party conventions were speaking primarily to the "true believers" - the base of voters that need no convincing. However, there were equally overt efforts to broaden the pool of support. In some cases, these were more surprising than others.
For Democrats, the push to appeal to the independent voters and moderate Republicans has come more naturally. In fact, this was part of the winning formula in the historic 2018 midterm victory. It was also a continuation of the 2016 trend of securing support from the "Never Trumpers" - the loose coalition extending from traditional conservatives to neoconservatives - who could not remain in the increasingly nativist GOP.
The choice of Republican speakers at the Democratic convention created considerable controversy. Former Ohio governor and 2016 GOP presidential primaries candidate John Kasich, as well as the Bush Jr. cabinet veteran and four-star general Colin Powell, were called upon to appeal to their fellow Republicans and conservatives to support Joe Biden. Clearly, this hasn't done much to enthuse the progressives in the party. However, Democratic party leaders are banking on this being the year that Democrats will "vote Blue no matter who", while creating a cohort of Biden Republicans along the way.
On the other hand, the messaging at the GOP convention was in stark contrast with President Trump's political instincts and policy record thus far. To the surprise of many, a considerable portion of the four days of the RNC was dedicated to portraying the party as the natural home for America's minorities and women. A parade of politicians and public figures of minority background, including the former governor of South Carolina and US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and South Carolina senator Tim Scott, were enlisted to make a pitch for President Trump's second term. This was no doubt a significant improvement from what was then-candidate Trump's petition to the African-American community in 2016 to secure their votes: "What do you have to lose?"
Equally, women from Trump's orbit, including the First Lady Melania Trump, had a single mission - to portray the President as a compassionate man and a champion of women. This was yet another split-screen moment, if one recalls the early days of Trump presidency that brought about the Women's March - the largest demonstrations in the US and around the world in support of women's rights and against the new US President - or if one considers the fact that at the moment women make up less than a fifth of the incumbent's cabinet.
The convention was thus oscillating between racially charged dog whistles around the maintenance of law and order and preserving America's monocultural identity on the one hand, and overtures to the groups that stand to lose the most from Trump's policies on the other. Yet the logic behind such see-sawing in messaging is based on the campaign's fixation on suburban white women, whose votes are critical in swing states but who have been precipitously withdrawing their support for the President. Some of it is also about trying to secure minority voters, with whom Trump performed better in 2016 than Mitt Romney in 2012.
In the annus horribilis that 2020 has been thus far, and with a President who has a penchant for producing more stories than the media can follow at any given time, conventions will soon be relegated to yesterday's news bin. However, in order to ascertain the effectiveness of these most unusual party meetings thus far, one should pay attention to the trends that will indicate which side of the split-screen narratives has been more successful in mobilising voters. Answers to questions such as how many of those who did not vote in 2016 are now intending to do so, how much support the Black Lives Matter protests have in swing states, and where Joe Biden stands compared to Hillary Clinton this time four years ago will be crucial.