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The Midweek Mop-Up With Mo Elleithee
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The Midweek Mop-Up With Mo Elleithee

‘This is the first convention made for digital moments.’

Mo Elleithee is the director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics now, but I met him while I was at the RNC and he was the DNC’s communications director during the 2014 election cycle. More on that at the end of our conversation, but I have always found Mo to be the platonic ideal of a political operative: thoughtful, patriotic, competitive, generous, and clever. So when it comes to the Democratic Convention, there’s no one’s opinion I wanted to hear more than Mo’s. And I figured I’d just share our conversation with y’all!

(Oh and fun fact I learned about my friend during our chat: Mo’s very first national political experience came as a volunteer at the 1992 Democratic Convention in New York City where he got to staff Rosa Parks. How cool is that as an introduction to the political operative world?)

Sarah: Some ups and downs these first two nights. But I think we can say for sure, one thing was certainly better and will almost certainly stay regardless of how conventions look in the future, which is the roll call.

Mo: The roll call was fantastic and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing. 

Sarah: The calamari! Everyone was posting pictures of Rhode Island calamari and I got really hungry because I love hot peppers with calamari.

Mo: Right? Here’s what I liked so far. Yes, there were some moments of awkwardness, particularly the beginning of the first night. But I think a lot of that was those of us who were used to seeing it done a certain way having to adjust. What I like is that it’s more engaging. What I like is that it involves the audience in the way it hasn’t in the past. You and I both know that the broadcast networks were dedicating less and less air time to the conventions, and half of the time they were giving to the conventions were filled with talking heads like you and me while the speakers were speaking behind us. 

Sarah: It was also visually very boring before.

Mo: Yes, they would do a lot of cut away shots to activists wearing funny hats. And a lot of the criticism so far has been that you’re losing a lot of the excitement. Well what you’re trading is energy for intimacy. No longer are we asked as an audience to watch this thing that’s happening in some far away city with a bunch of people who I may or may not identify with. They’re actually bringing it from their living rooms into my living room, and that creates a different bond with the viewer. And I think that’s innovative. Now as I said, the conventions used to be made for tv moments, but I think this is the first convention made for digital moments. It’s being produced in a really smart way. Every single segment can be cut and shared. There’s a cool feature on Demconvention.com where you can click a button to turn your camera on and have the chance to be on tv as part of a response shot. It’s like the jumbotron at basketball games, although they’re not doing the kiss cam. 

Sarah: Let’s talk viewership numbers because you’re right, tv’s down a substantial amount but not crazy.

Mo: It’s been decreasing every four years.

Sarah: Digital is way up. Do you think that they’re reaching people whose minds weren’t already made up? 

Mo: Well that’s the big question. 

Sarah: Who tunes into this online? It’s different than tv where you’re flipping through channels and land on this maybe, but if the majority of the audience is online then just like social media they are making a very intentional choice to tune in. Which means they’re just preaching to their own folks.

Mo: Maybe that’s true. And you’re right: For the most part over the past few cycles we’ve seen that Democrats are tuning in to most of the Democratic Convention, Republicans are tuning in to most of the Republcian Convention. Independents are maybe checking out the nominees’ speeches and that’s it. Who knows, maybe that remains the case this time, I haven’t seen that sort of detailed viewership breakdown. But it can also be said that young voters—which is a huge target for the Democratic party—are more digitally native and so maybe that’s where they’re capturing it, meaning that the people who we’re seeing on tv are still those swing voters that are also as important.

Sarah: Let’s do some takes on some moments from the first two days. Bill Clinton: Net plus or net minus?

Mo: Before you can analyze whether or not a particular speaker was helpful, the question is who they were trying to speak to. Who are the swing voters in this election? You and I both know, every convention needs to do two things. Mobilize those who are with you and persuade the persuadable. The people who are persuadable right now—if you look at the most recent polls—are suburban voters, independent voters and middle class voters. In our most recent poll out of the institute, we’re seeing a huge fluctuation there. In October, Donald Trump had a nine point lead with middle class voters. You know as well as I do that Republicans have to win middle class voters in order to win the presidency. In our most recent poll from last week, Joe Biden had an eight point lead with middle class voters.

Sarah: Wow that’s a big swing, that’s like the old people in Florida swing.

Mo: That’s a huge swing. Seniors are a huge swing population now like you said. And so I look at each speaker and try to analyze whether they’re trying to mobilize or persuade. Bill Clinton is one of those figures in the Democratic Party who can do both. Look, I think Bill Clinton is one of the most successful populists in modern American politics, a very different flavor of populism than Donald Trump projects, but using different language. The biggest challenge for the Clinton speech was the format. He is one who is really good on the stump, behind the podium, at really connecting with large audiences. Sitting in a living room and speaking was a different feel than what you got with Michelle Obama the night before. I don’t think it will be one of the most memorable speeches of this convention in the way that his speech in 2012 in support of Obama’s reelection was the most memorable speech of that convention. 

Sarah: Two negatives I thought of watching it. Obviously, for young people who never experienced the Clinton presidency and who Democrats want to get excited. They’re already Democrats but the question is if they’re voting, so they want to energize them. They don’t know Bill Clinton and in the wake of #MeToo it’s a little cringey. And number two, because I did this, how many people said,. “Oh man that’s Bill Clinton, he’s getting old. How old is he? [Google] Oh wow he’s younger than Joe Biden!” And so it’s just another reminder on age.

Mo: Here’s what I like about this convention, there’s something for everybody. This goes back to the digital first nature of the convention. There are going to be a lot of voters out there who are going to be thinking: Remind me, who is Bill Clinton again?

Sarah: Or Maggie Rogers, right? It goes both ways. But then five minutes later you get someone else.

Mo: Five minutes later you get the reverse. You get AOC who people with gr   ay hair maybe scratch their heads at, but young people start shaking with excitement over. AOC helped litigate the case against Trump more than anything there and sends a strong signal to progressives who may be disappointed that they didn’t win the presidential primary with one of their preferred candidates. She sends a message that it’s still all hands on deck time. 

Sarah: But did it? She didn’t talk about Joe Biden.

Mo: She didn’t talk about Joe Biden and I think that was a missed opportunity but her role was to second the nomination for Bernie Sanders.

Sarah: I know but that was maybe her very micro role, but the point of the convention is to make the case for Joe Biden and make the case against Trump and it seemed odd. Just to break this down a little bit, what’s the strategy for AOC? She’s going to want to run for president someday. This platform was a big jumping off point for Barack Obama and it really launched him in 2004. Forget what she was asked to do: What did AOC come in wanting to accomplish and did she?

Mo: To start, this is not going to be the kind of convention that allows us to identify a future president. We’re not going to have this Barack Obama 2004 moment in this convention. They even did away with the traditional keynote. Instead of having a singular rising star of the party give that kind of 2004 Barack Obama speech or 1984 Mario Cuomo, or 1988 Ann Richards speech, they had seventeen rising stars each give a speech together. Again, this convention is going to have different results from the way things have been done previously. But what did AOC get out of this? She got another elevated platform to establish herself as an emerging advocate and leader for the progressive party. She was part of the passing of the torch from Bernie Sanders to AOC as a progressive lion in the U.S. Congress. And she used that to paint a picture of what America looks like under Trump in order to light a fire under progressives. So I think strategically, that was a big deal for her, to be seen as an heir to Bernie Sanders.

Sarah: I think it was a wildly missed opportunity for her. She had one minute, but sometimes that gives you even more of an opportunity to stand out. When you have a fifteen minute speech then you’re expected to do everything. When you only have one minute you can have a moment to do something and instead it felt very traditional and almost cliche. We already know you’re for racial justice and social justice and economic justice. Even if you’re a die-hard Bernie supporter I don’t think AOC picked up the flag and carried it up the hill. I don’t know that she needed to talk about Joe Biden necessarily. But if I just worked for her, I’d be kicking myself because that didn’t accomplish anything.

Mo: I think you’re probably right, I don’t think it propelled her into any new stratosphere. She came in strong with progressives, she walked out strong with progressives. You get a little bit of a visual of the passing of the torch vibe to it but beyond that I don’t know if it accomplished much.

Sarah: If she’d used that one minute for example to read some progressive poet or something that shocked or confused, people would’ve Googled it and been educated by it and that would’ve been super on brand for her.

Mo: It was probably the most conventional speech she’s given.

Sarah: Now the actual nomination of Joe Biden. I loved the concept. Here’s a woman who met him in the elevator on his way up to the New York Times endorsement that he did not get. But the video of her meeting him goes viral, and she’s the one who nominated him. But again set aside pure pundit hat and put on your DNC comms hat for a second. I loved that she was standing by the elevator, that to me worked. But I just wanted it to be more off the cuff.

Mo: Look, it was written. It had to be scripted. At the very end of the night, the convention went over time by three or four minutes. When was the last time a convention went only three or four minutes over time? They have been incredibly disciplined on time, so you can’t really let someone go off the cuff and still stick to the program. So it had to be scripted so she had to read it. But it felt like something she wrote, it felt like they said to her: “Tell us your story, and we’ll figure out how to say it in one or two minutes. Every convention will somehow at some point bring real people to the podium. That feels a lot less genuine to me. Bringing people to stand at the podium that the nominee is going to speak at and they’re nervous in front of a big crow. That, to me, has created more awkwardness in the past. This feels real because they’re spending more time in their natural habitats and they’re showing more of it on tv. 

Sarah: Okay, highlight? Michelle Obama?

Mo: There have been three or four highlights so far she has been one of the standouts. The woman from Arizona who talked about her father who died of COVID may be one of the most powerful indictments against the president we’ve heard so far. The guy yesterday who spoke about his own battle with ALS and the need for better healthcare. And then the entire Jill Biden lead in to Biden was amazing with Cindy McCain too. The two videos blended together. The tribute to the friendship between John McCain and Joe Biden: I was choking up. And then, the Jill Biden bio video. A lot of times these leads in videos just feel very political but those two did not.

Sarah: The video when he said “Our mommy died this is our mom.” I know it’s because I’m a new mom but it broke my heart and made it all warm inside.

Mo: It was raw and real.

Sarah: Because their story is, that’s part of it.

Mo: It captured the genuineness of it. When she was talking about listening to the faint laughter upstairs when Joe was tucking the kids in while she was at the kitchen table grading papers with a pile of dishes in our sink waiting to be done.

Sarah: Who doesn’t feel that right now?

Mo: So I thought the video production was beautiful and her speech did what it needed to do which was talk about Joe Biden the man. Those to me were the four highlights, along with the roll call.

Sarah: Do you think the Democrats will try to counterprogram for next week’s RNC Convention or will they let Trump have his moment and say “this is what you’re getting if you re-   elect Trump.”

Mo: They will try but I think the overwhelming narrative will be the comparisons between the two conventions because so much of this is unique this year. Usually whoever goes second has the benefit of being the last word. But this time, the RNC will have the burden of being compared to what I think will be seen as a unique and creative Democratic convention. So they have a huge opportunity if they do it better, but there will be a lot of comparisons. 

Sarah: A lot of folks are talking about the future of the parties. I have a different question for you about the future of folks like us. You and I met up when we were working across the street from one another, we saw each other at the food trucks that would park in between the RNC and DNC and we became friends. But we didn’t advertise our friendship because even back then people were seeing bipartisanship as a weakness. Do you think we will head back to a time when bipartisanship is rewarded and celebrated and you and I being friends is a good thing? Or will this continue as it has where it is important for professional operatives not just to see each other as the competition but as the enemy? 

Mo: I wish I had an answer to that question. It’s a big part of my day job now, which is to engage the next generation of operatives to be better than even we were. Why did you and I become friends? Because we started talking to each other. And we developed a healthy respect for each other as competitors. Standing in line with you at the food truck, I realized you’re not as evil as you were on social media! I’m worried about the slow and steady march towards the demonization of our opponents. I’m even more worried about it in the age of COVID where there are no food trucks for people to run into each other. 

I’ve met young press secretaries on campaigns who have entire relationships with reporters that they’ve never met in person. They might not even know the sound of the person’s voice because all they do is g-chat or email or Twitter. The dehumanization of the process is becoming a real problem. 

It’s happening intra-party as well as it is across party lines. I expect we will see more moderate Republicans speak at the Democratic convention than we will at the Republican convention. There’s an isolationism and a boxing out.

And look, it’s not all political leaders’ fault. Politics is a free market enterprise. We’ve been polling the issue of civility for the past year and a half to test voters’ attitudes towards civility. When you ask people if they want more civility in politics, around 90 percent say yes. But then you ask the question differently: Agree or disagree with the following statement. “Common ground and compromise are noble goals we want our leaders to aspire to.” 87 percent say yes. The very next question: “Agree or disagree: I’m tired of leaders compromising on my values, I want them to stand up to the other side.” 84 percent agree with that. If you’re a political leader or a political consultant whose job it is to understand the will of the voters. That’s a hard tightrope to walk. Where’s the incentive structure? 

Sarah: Did you see this poll? Basically it said for people under 30, 44 percent said people who donate to Donald Trump should be fired and 27 percent said people who donate to Joe Biden should be fired. Yikes!

Mo: For the first time in recent polling—this is both good and depressing—parents have a bigger problem with their children dating outside of their party than outside of their race or their faith. That is both great and demoralizing. That comes from the voters, that doesn’t come from politicians. We have to take responsibility. If voters start demanding better behavior then they will start to see it.

Photograph by Olibirt Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.