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Susan Page has covered 10 presidential elections and all 20 political conventions. At her first in Detroit in 1980, she was such a junior reporter she was assigned to stay in a hotel in Canada. “I had to cross the border twice a day,” she says.
“These are the first conventions I’ve covered from various rooms in my house. Does that still count?” she asks. “The food is better at home, but I miss the serendipity of in-person conventions — the chance to catch the spontaneous reaction of the crowd, like Bernie Sanders’ supporters booing the DNC chair in 2016, and Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama igniting the hall in 2004.”
The conventions every four years are the Super Bowl for political journalists. As soon as host cities are announced, planning begins. We were ready for Milwaukee(Democrats) and Charlotte (Republicans). Then things changed (President Donald Trump to Jacksonville), then changed again (maybe Gettysburg) and changed again (the White House). Meanwhile, Joe Biden and the Democrats centered on Wilmington, Delaware, with feeds from all states and territories.
White House correspondent John Fritze said that usually there is much action off the stage.
“Which up-and-comers are addressing the Iowa delegation breakfast? What’s on the minds of the delegates or alternates — the party faithful — no one’s ever heard of? Which strategists are plotting their next job with which potential candidate in the hotel bar?” he asked. “All of that went missing this time.”
But the basics for us never changed. “Cover the news,” Page said. “Put it in context. Fact-check the claims. And get ready for a fall campaign like we’ve never seen before.”
While Page has covered 20 conventions, for national political correspondent Phillip Bailey, it was his first. His takeaway: Colorblind conservatives are no more.
“In the first two days of the GOP convention, prominent figures, such as former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., talked up their racial and ethnic background as a sign of strength within the conservative movement’s ranks,” Bailey said. “It was a departure in that Republicans have typically eschewed those distinctions to emphasize common bonds of civic pride over any overt plays to ethic identity.”
He thought Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is Black, made one of the more striking additions to this narrative “when looking at the camera and telling Democratic nominee Joe Biden to ‘look at me. I am black. We are not all the same, sir. I am not in chains. My mind is my own. And you can’t tell me how to vote because of the color of my skin.'”
Congressional correspondent Nicholas Wu was interested that the conventions presented different visions of America, but both against the backdrop of the racial protests and COVID-19. I asked, do you feel like this was acknowledged?
“They certainly tried,” he said. “But it’s an interesting juxtaposition of what’s ostensibly a celebration of a party at a time of so much national tragedy.”
USA TODAY has a robust fact checking team. Political editor Louie Villalobos says they’ll be busy.
“What struck me was the number of half-truths and lies being spread during both weeks and the level of interest from readers in journalists calling that out,” he said. “We can see clearly that our readers want factual context and for us to point out when somebody lies, especially when that somebody is President Trump or Joe Biden.
We have a ton of work to do between now and the election.”
Political reporter Rebecca Morin believes the stories from real people were game-changers and could shift convention strategies moving forward.
“Traditionally, when you think of conventions, I feel like we’re watching for the next rising star in each party,” she said. “There seems to be this renewed focus on trying to tell stories from real Americans. For example, at the DNC, Brayden Harrington (the teen who talked about his stutter) stole the show.”
One message that came across loud and clear for Washington editor Caren Bohan: The effort by Team Trump to answer the “character” question that Joe Biden and Democrats had raised the week before.
“Democrats had portrayed Trump as a divisive leader, lacking the empathy and maturity to lead the nation at a time of crisis,” said Bohan, who has covered five rounds of conventions. “Ahead of the RNC, our team had been reporting that one of the reasons there were some last-minute decisions in the format for the RNC was that the planners were looking closely at the DNC and trying to gauge which themes they might want to hit back on.”
Political reporter Joey Garrison says the shift was in reaction to Trump struggling in the polls with suburban voters.
“The convention cast Trump as a champion for women who has empowered their careers. Republicans featured several African American men speakers who pushed back at the suggestion that Trump is a racist,” he said. “These messages complemented the other overt play to the suburbs – tying Biden to violent protests across the nation and warning, ‘You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.'”
“Democrats have sought to make the election a referendum on Trump, and they used the convention to unite different wings of their party to really drill into that message,” she said. “Republicans said the GOP convention really needed to focus on making it a choice between two candidates and two visions for America.
“But set against the backdrop of multiple crises – the pandemic, a recession, renewed protests over racial injustice and now a hurricane – the question is whether Republicans can convince Americans that a second term won’t see the same amount of turmoil that has marked this last stretch of the Trump presidency.”
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.