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How the pandemic has changed 2020 campaign coverage
03:37 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

It may be unfashionable to say, but national party conventions are important – even when the parties can’t convene.

David Axelrod

They are among the few nights on the election calendar when a candidate and campaign have the chance to deliver an unfiltered message directly to an audience of tens of millions of Americans.

Joe Biden enters his convention with an average polling lead of 9 points, the strongest position of any challenger to an incumbent president in recent history.

Yet in a deeply divided country, the race is bound to tighten. A CNN poll released Sunday puts Biden’s lead at a narrower four points. The convention gives him a chance to fortify his position for the fall campaign before Trump gets his turn at the Republican Convention next week.

First, while he has held a steady lead, only about a third of voters backing the former Vice President say they are doing so primarily to support him. Most say they will vote for Biden out of a desire to defeat President Trump.

This reflects the fact that, despite his 50 years in politics, Biden’s background isn’t all that well known. People remember him as Barack Obama’s Vice President. Many Americans recall the tragic death of Biden’s son, Beau, which the country watched him live through. But the convention is a chance to flesh out Biden’s biography and accomplishments.

Biden’s strengths – namely, character decency, empathy, and experience – should all be comparative advantages in a race against a president whose personal qualities and management style have become major liabilities, especially in the crucible of the Covid-19 crisis. Look for the Democrats to draw those contrasts.

The President’s chaotic stewardship during the virus itself and Trump’s relentlessly divisive leadership will be a persistent theme. Biden began his race as a “Battle for the soul of America,” and it is a meme you can expect to hear throughout the week.

Yet while Biden leads Trump on many polling measures, there is one on which the President continues to have an advantage and that should be a concern to Biden and the Democrats. Despite the precipitous drop caused by the virus and measures to cope with it, Trump still leads on the important question of who will better handle the economy.

So, you can be sure that Democrats also will use the next four nights to attack Trump as a plutocrat in populist clothing, pushing policies that have benefited the wealthy like himself, while hurting working families.

In service of this argument, it’s a good bet Democrats will strike a contrast between Trump’s privileged life and Biden’s hardscrabble, working class roots and understanding of the struggles working families face.

Biden, at 77, also enters the race as the oldest candidate ever to run for President. (Trump is second at 74). As such, it is imperative for the convention and his speech on Thursday to not only draw a contrast with Trump but to paint a picture of the future that Biden envisions and his prescriptions for getting there.

He will have to do that and convey a sense of energy without the advantage of the roaring crowd that would normally greet the nominee at a traditional party convention. Biden’s speech instead may feel more like a fireside chat – a challenging assignment, but also more appropriate and reassuring for a country riven by crisis.

While the convention will lack the vitality of crowd interaction, the virtual format the virus requires will allow the organizers to produce two made-for-TV hours of programming each night, without the awkward intervals that the traditional, anachronistic convention provides.

You can expect faster-paced programming: Shorter and fewer speeches, more video and testimonials from everyday people and musical interludes. And while there will be more moving parts, as they pull in speakers from around the country, many of the presentations will have been pre-recorded, allowing the organizers greater quality control.

Democrats also have the advantage of having decided earlier to adopt a virtual format, while Republicans wasted many weeks searching for venues that would accommodate Trump’s vain insistence on speaking to a large crowd of supporters.

We will see next week if and how well the Republicans have caught up.

One other advantage of a virtual convention is that riffs between the far left and more moderate factions with the party will be on display little this week. Bound by their shared desperation to defeat Trump, and carefully negotiated platform language, they seem committed to presenting a united front behind Biden and his newly named running-mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris.

We will hear from the expected “closers,” Michelle and Barack Obama, Dr. Jill Biden and, of course, Harris and Biden themselves. We will hear from some of Biden’s vanquished opponents, led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, from an apostate Republican, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and the young progressive icon, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There will be celebrity hosts and everyday Americans, together painting a portrait of a diverse America.

Format notwithstanding, the strategic goal of these conventions will be the same as ever. Each side will tell their version of where we are, where we ought to go, and why their standard-bearer is the best positioned to take us to a better place that the other side will not.

And they both may be talking a lot about the same man.

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    For Biden, the task is to fully introduce himself to the nation and offer reassurance that he is the calm, steadying, decent leader many Americans seek.

    For an embattled Trump, about whom many Americans already have made up their minds, next week’s convention will be a lot about tearing Biden down.

    The race will not be won or lost in the next two weeks. But virtual or not, they will be important signposts along the way to the election this November.