WASHINGTON — Taking their cue from President Trump, Republicans at every level of the party are pushing ahead with plans to put on their national convention this summer and provide Mr. Trump the kind of gauzy coronation he seeks.
Democrats, by contrast, are mired in uncertainty. Access to their convention arena in Milwaukee is contingent on the state of the N.B.A. playoffs, and they won’t have an undisputed nominee until at least early June, while state parties scramble to rewrite rules governing delegate selection.
Even former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the likely Democratic nominee, has said “it’s hard to envision” his party’s convention taking place as planned in July. “The fact is it may have to be different,” he said during an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday night.
Both parties are finding every aspect of their national convention planning upended by the coronavirus pandemic, but the Republicans’ late-August convention slot — five weeks after the Democratic dates — and their near unanimity behind Mr. Trump have them in far greater alignment than their rivals.
“The bottom line is the show must go on,” said Justin Riemer, the counsel for the Republican National Committee. “The party is so unified and that goes all the way down — these processes start sometimes at the precinct level. Everyone is playing from the same sheet of music.”
The disparate approaches extend in some cases to the state level, most evident in Texas, where Republicans have moved their state convention to later in the summer, while Democrats last week canceled theirs and are looking into conducting a half-day virtual event instead.
Many state Republican leaders acknowledge the threat from the virus and are in the process of weighing whether to move conventions online, but Mr. Trump has so far been adamant that the national convention proceed as planned. And a campaign and party committee that faithfully follow Mr. Trump’s lead have adopted that party line, with no talk yet of canceling the event in Charlotte, N.C.
Still, throughout the pandemic, Mr. Trump has taken overly optimistic positions — like his announcement that he wanted to reopen the country for business by Easter — only to have to back down when confronted with reality, often leaving staff members scrambling to react.
Democratic officials have tried tamping down speculation about the increasing likelihood that the national convention won’t take place as planned. Seema Nanda, the party’s chief executive, recently urged state chairmen not to speak publicly about that possibility, according to multiple state party leaders who were on the call.
Mr. Biden’s comments Tuesday night, however, acknowledged the challenge of proceeding with an in-person convention. Nor are party leaders making the kind of assertive pronouncements about the political calendar the way the president is.
“When the leader of the Republican Party says this is all going to be over by Easter and there’s going to be a convention like there always is, that’s easier,” said Joe Solmonese, the chief executive of the Democratic National Convention. “We are a party that actually has to deliver sobering news to people — like it’s not going to be over by Easter and there are no easy answers.”
Mr. Solmonese, a veteran of liberal politics who has led the Human Rights Campaign and Emily’s List, said he has six to eight weeks before he must make a “decision of consequence” about holding the convention.
But even the most optimistic projections are troublesome.
The D.N.C. has the legal right to use the Fiserv Forum, the home arena of the Milwaukee Bucks, during the four scheduled days of the convention, July 13 to 16. But the agreement stipulates that convention planners can’t begin retrofitting the 17,000-seat venue until after the Bucks are finished in the playoffs — which, if the N.B.A.’s season restarts, could last into mid-July. The team had the best record in the league when the season was suspended.
Past national conventions have required three to four weeks to build stages and turn arenas used for basketball and hockey into a setting made for a nationally televised political extravaganza.
“If we’re fortunate enough to host the convention and playoffs, we’ll figure out how to make it work,” said Alex Lasry, a senior Bucks official who led Milwaukee’s convention bid. “These will be two of our biggest events, so we’re going to figure it out, make them successful and put Milwaukee on the map.”
Rewriting a convention plan on the fly is far easier for a party with a presumptive nominee and no possibility of challenges on the floor, which can be pesky issues under normal circumstances. Mr. Trump’s allies on the Republican National Committee have seen to it over his three years in office that anyone who might be a dissenting voice in Charlotte — where the N.B.A. team that plays in the convention arena is far out of playoff contention — is kept away from important roles in the party or its convention.
“The 2020 Republican convention is going to be the coronation of Trump,” said Scott W. Reed, the senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who also directed preparations for the Republican convention in 1996.
Mr. Reed said he saw little downside to hosting a virtual convention, if it comes to that.
“Trump’s four most favorite political words are: never been done before,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you wouldn’t give a major address, but you could really focus it on the six battleground states and highlight events in those states throughout the evening.”
While Republicans have little to debate at their convention, Democrats are bracing for fights. Allies of Senator Bernie Sanders, who remains in the race despite Mr. Biden’s commanding advantage, are encouraging him to keep going to accumulate more delegates. That would enable him to influence the platform and rules discussions, debates that animated the 2016 Democratic convention.
Larry Cohen, a longtime Sanders ally who is chairman of Our Revolution, the political organization that sprung from the 2016 Sanders campaign, published an op-ed Monday in the liberal magazine In These Times warning that if Mr. Sanders drops out, his allies may not win any seats on the powerful rules and platform committees at the convention. That prospect, he wrote, could lead to the party resurrecting the power of superdelegates for the 2024 primary election, an arrangement Mr. Sanders denounced in 2016 and fought vigorously to change.
“There are a lot of people who are supporting me, and we have a strong grass-roots movement, who believe that we have got to stay in in order to continue the fight,” Mr.
Sanders said during a Monday appearance on Seth Meyers’s late-night TV show.
And while Republican convention delegates will be a who’s who of Trump supporters without meaningful opposition, a virtual Democratic convention would leave would-be Sanders delegates without much prospect of pushing the party to the left.
“How do you have a floor debate when the floor is a virtual Zoom room?” said Valdez Bravo, a 2016 Sanders delegate from Lake Oswego, Ore., who is running to become a 2020 delegate.
The contrast in approaches is on vivid display in Texas, where both party conventions convene about 9,000 delegates each, twice the number of delegates that will gather in Charlotte and Milwaukee.
But after a state executive order that limited gatherings to 10 people, among other measures, James Dickey, the Texas Republican chairman, began the process of rescheduling his party’s gathering, from May to mid-July, in hopes that virus-related restrictions will pass.
Texas Republicans have already canceled their in-person precinct and county conventions, which were to take place in March. Instead, Mr. Dickey said, party officials held a statewide “tele-town hall” and conference calls with each county chairman.
Mr. Dickey said there is no process to replace the state convention.
“There are a lot of downsides to doing anything digital, even for groups of only hundreds,” he said. “When we get to groups of thousands, it’s harder to find a vendor who can pull off an event where 15,000 people are participating.”
Last Thursday Texas Democrats came to the opposite conclusion. Gilberto Hinojosa, the party chairman, canceled the planned June 4 state convention in San Antonio after local officials forbade gatherings larger than 50 people until mid-June.
Democratic rules require state parties to assign national convention delegates by June 23, so Mr. Hinojosa did not have the option of delaying his state’s convention until public health conditions improve. He is now working to put on a half-day virtual state convention, though he said it remains unclear how it will work.
“We think we can pull it off and we think we can make it meaningful and leave the virtual convention with a full slate of delegates to the national convention and a platform that people feel good about,” Mr. Hinojosa said.
The pandemic has upended months of planning by Democrats to prepare party delegates. At least 23 Democratic state parties are planning not to hold in-person conventions, according to a memo sent on Friday to members of the party’s powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee.
In Nebraska, Jane Kleeb, the state’s Democratic chairwoman, spent the last three months on a 30-stop tour of her state to recruit and train Democrats on how to become convention delegates. Now she has been forced to scrap the first steps in the process — conventions in each of the state’s 93 counties — replacing them with a combination of conference calls and email and mail ballots.
“You put all this effort into making it accessible and welcoming to people,” she said. “Now we’re having to change everything at the last minute and do it so the party loyalists will be engaged but probably nobody else.”
Even some Republicans agreed there was something lost in the process, though the desired end point is for Mr. Trump to have his big moment in Charlotte.
“What’s missing is you can’t have the back and forth,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, who decided last week that district conventions across the state would be held by paper ballot instead of in person. “Some people wanted to have a healthy debate on issues where Republicans disagree.”
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