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A traditional summertime convention amid coronavirus? Both parties wrestle cost and image issues

What it was like covering the 2020 campaign
What it was like covering the 2020 campaign 30:26

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the country and unemployment rates skyrocket, leaders from both parties are worried about how they will be able to fund their conventions. In an average year, hosting a major party convention can cost tens of millions.

Some Democratic Party leaders have expressed concern about the economic impact of hosting a convention in August. Though DNC members were pleased the committee postponed its national convention to the week of August 17, some party leaders are voicing uncertainty about the likelihood of an in-person gathering.

"Even when we're not in the midst of a public health and economic crisis, it's an expensive undertaking to go to a national convention," said North Dakota Democratic–Nonpartisan League Party Chairwoman Kylie Oversen. "And so, that strain is just even larger in the circumstances."

"When you're trying to keep the lights on, keep gas in the car, pay for medical bills if you have those, get food for your family, this [convention] becomes a discretionary expense and falls to the bottom of the list," said North Carolina DNC member Shelia Huggins. "People generally pay their own way and so you're talking about now, the ability of people to pay their own way when they may not have anything to pay with."

In past cycles, Republican and Democratic conventions have cost $65 million, according to multiple senior party officials familiar with fundraising efforts. 

Conversations with more than two dozen Democratic and Republican party members and candidates revealed mixed levels of concern surrounding the colossal event planning in Charlotte and Milwaukee. While some officials are confident that convention planners will pull off in-person events, others express concerns. 

"To be honest, I don't even know if I can afford to go to the convention," said Troy Jackson, a state senator from Maine. "You know, I'm a DNC member and superdelegate, and that's not going to be my focus. My focus is going to be making my payments. I think that's where the majority of Americans are." 

Jackson, who is a longtime timber logger, told CBS News that he hopes the economy will be back on track come August, but he isn't counting on it. While he wholeheartedly agrees with the decision to postpone the convention, he added the decision-making process remains a mystery to most delegates. "The attitude is just, 'get on board.'"

The Democratic National Convention Committee said it would work with state parties and their delegations to address unforeseen financial hardships due to the coronavirus, as it plans the convention. Historically, state parties have helped organize grassroots fundraisers and scholarship programs for delegates, but Jane Kleeb, the Nebraska Democratic State Party Chairwoman, said that under the current economic circumstances, raising money will be difficult.

"Given such the huge economic crisis that our country is now in the middle of, [fundraising] would have to be on steroids," Kleeb added. 

Two Democratic Party committee members in Oklahoma offered to help offset the cost for some of its members by hosting fundraisers for delegates. Carol Fowler, a former South Carolina Democratic state party chair, said the state's party has a firm that helps people pay for plane tickets, hotels and national conventions.

"It's not a cheap proposition, but we never want anybody to miss out because they feel like they can't afford it," Fowler added. 

Sami Banat, a 17-year-old Minnesotan running to be a delegate, said he's committed to going to the convention if elected. Banat is considering a GoFundMe page as a fundraising tool if elected as a delegate.
 
"I don't know exactly what's going to cost, but I mean, from the past, I've seen people have to fundraise over $1,000 to get to the convention," Banat said. 

CBS News spoke with members who report personal costs of anywhere from $2,000 - $5,000 to attend. Georgia Democratic Party first vice chair Ted Terry is running for a county commission seat and said "pandemic or not, it's always hard to ask for money." 

"I've talked to some people who said, 'Yeah, I lost my job, I'm a waiter but I'll give you five bucks for your campaign," said Terry, a former mayor who served as a 2016 Bernie Sanders delegate.

In the past, conventions had been criticized as candidates being chosen in smoke-filled rooms. But in the modern era, conventions are televised events that broadcast the entire process. Since Sanders suspended his campaign this week, Joe Biden is expected to become the nominee and is all-but-guaranteed the 1,991 delegates he needs to secure the nomination under Democratic party rules. Biden's status as presumptive nominee means there likely will be little drama on the convention floor, questioning the need for an in-person convention. 

Biden has indicated that he is open to the idea of having a virtual convention. Multiple sources argued that the resources for the party to hold an in-person convention should be allocated differently. 

"I think those resources are better served supporting [the] presumptive nominee and supporting frankly our communities right now who are hurting," Oversen, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL chairwoman, said. "I think in my personal opinion, [it is] irresponsible to not be moving toward a virtual convention soon, if not immediately."

On the Republican side, President Trump has already secured the 1,276 delegates needed for his party's nomination. 

National conventions boost the local economies of host cities to the tune of millions of dollars, an issue Republican officials cited as they continue to plan for their convention in Charlotte. 

"As we consider our post COVID-19 recovery, we believe the 2020 Republican National Convention this August will take on an even greater role in the civic life of our country and the economic rejuvenation of Charlotte and the Carolinas," said a Republican National Convention Committee spokesperson in a statement. "We have an incredibly strong partnership with the city and could not ask for a better team to be working with to make this a truly memorable, enjoyable and safe experience for all." 

According to multiple senior party officials, the RNC has built a war chest of contingency plans over the years. In 2008 and 2012, conventions were condensed amid severe weather. "There's an infrastructure, kind of a legacy of documents that already exist and are kept safe," a former senior party official told CBS News. "I'm sure there are no pandemic plans, but there are a lot of contingency plans passed down from a historical perspective that are easily adapted."

Yet officials across the board acknowledge the unprecedented nature of the global pandemic heading into the general election. "We don't have a contingency plan for a global pandemic that shuts down the United States, pretty much," Colorado Democratic Party vice chair Howard Chou told CBS News.

With many American industries and households now facing economic hardship, Republican and Democratic party officials are also sensitive to how struggling Americans might perceive a traditional convention. 

"Electing a president is serious business and therefore, nominating a president is serious business, and you got people who are very involved in that process on both sides," said South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick. "I'm not worried about people having a negative opinion of people who are, well, just active supporters of their respective candidates and want to help promote their campaigns and their candidate because that's what it's going to come down to in the fall."

"[If] we are the party of the people… then we need to make sure we demonstrate that during the convention," added South Carolina DNC member Clay Middleton. "People, hourly workers, have been hit hard by this. The people we claim to represent have been hurt the hardest and will take the longest to recover."

Sarah Ewall-Wice, Musadiq Bidar, Ben Mitchell contributed reporting. 

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