As political conventions go virtual, so does the chatter

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Michael Collins, a volunteer organizer for Black Voices for Trump, watches the Republican National Convention, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Tallahassee, Fla. (Belinda Collins via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Dwight Van Lierop was unimpressed by the opening nights of this week's Republican National Convention, where speaker after speaker extolled the record and character of President Donald Trump in terms that didn't always match reality. Then Burgess Owens spoke.

The former NFL player, who is Black and a Republican congressional candidate in Utah, delivered a deeply personal speech that reflected the ups and downs of his life.

Van Lierop, who is white, was impressed. Staying home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he logged on to Facebook to share his views.

“Regardless of your political views, or your race — his life story gives each one of us hope!” he posted, receiving a few dozen “likes” and several comments of approval.

The pandemic has fundamentally reshaped this year's presidential election, prompting both parties to ditch their traditional arena-style conventions. It also changed how people watched the proceedings, limiting — if not scuttling — watch parties and other gatherings that often assemble every four years.

Much of the conversation this week happened online, on such places as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and, of course, Trump's outlet of choice, Twitter — not to mention Zoom and other online conferencing platforms.

Michael Collins, a volunteer organizer in Tallahassee for Black Voices for Trump, has been watching the convention from his living room, with his wife and children nearby to go over the blow-by-blow.

But he has also been on social media, he said, “to post the highlights, the good talking points, the good messages and the powerful things that hit home.”

Chris Karow, a 19-year-old first-time voter and political science major at Florida State University, watched much of the GOP convention and also some of the Democratic convention last week.

“Being an election year, I would have liked to have hung out with friends and watch the convention and been able to talk about it in person — if I didn't have to be in my house quarantining because of COVID,” Karow said.

Karow, who serves as treasurer for his college campus's branch of the Young Americas Foundation, had hoped for deep in-person political conversations with other like-minded conservatives.

Instead, what he mostly got in his social media feeds were posts from left-leaning friends, trolls and memes disparaging Republican convention speakers.

"I was just looking to see how people kind of viewed certain speeches, and what they were saying about specific speakers," he said.

While much of the conversation about politics has shifted into the virtual world, some Republicans hadn't given up on in-person gatherings to watch the convention — particularly in parts of the country that has expressed skepticism about measures meant to control the pandemic, such as wearing masks.

The Minnesota Federation of Republican Women rented a larger space at a community center to give the party faithful room to spread out.

“People can do social distancing and we’re offering popcorn,” said the group’s president, Kathy Tingelstad. “It just seems like it’s more fun to watch it in a group.”

Months ago, Sifang Wu, who chairs the Asian American Republicans of Minnesota, had planned to fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, which was initially selected to host convention festivities.

On Thursday, she went to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to join a gathering organized by the Republican parties of Minnesota and South Dakota to watch the president accept his renomination.

In South Carolina, one grassroots Trump backer hosted mask-wearing fellow supporters at a watch party in Aiken County. Meanwhile, another in-person event at a Columbia restaurant had also been planned but would cap attendees to a few dozen to comply with social distancing precautions.

But other Republicans like Emma Scott, a University of South Carolina junior, opted to keep their distance. Scott chairs the South Carolina Federation of College Republicans, which relied on Zoom calls or group messages to stay connected and discuss this week’s speeches.

“While meetings may look a little different right now, South Carolina’s College Republicans are energized and excited for a successful semester helping strong Republican candidates win up and down the ballot,” said Scott, 20, who is from Charleston. “We are proud to come together to watch the nomination of President Trump during this week’s historic RNC.”

Drew McKissick, who chairs South Carolina’s Republican Party, expressed disappointment that prime-time convention festivities weren’t being held in neighboring North Carolina as planned. But he said enthusiasm remains strong among the party faithful.

“We’re improvising and adapting across the state to get together and show him our support,” McKissick said of Trump. “I imagine we’ll see lots of posts on Facebook from watch parties in neighborhoods or people wearing MAGA masks if they’re watching it in public.”


Kinnard reported from Columbia, S.C. Ibrahim is a Minneapolis-based corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.