Virtual Caucuses Bring in Record Digital Audiences Unseen in Past Conventions

Democratic Party insiders and faithful alike faced the prospect of their first-ever virtual convention with hope and trepidation. But no one could have predicted one result: the explosion of participation in caucuses, a vital element of the Party's operation.

The Hispanic caucus livestream this week drew 10,673 viewers, the Women's caucus 11,039, the Labor Council 14,176, and the Black caucus 15,910.

Compare that to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, where approximately 50 people attended the Hispanic caucus, while the Black caucus drew less than 100.

"What we are witness to is a perfect storm," said Estuardo Rodriguez, co-founder of the Raben Group, a public policy firm in Washington, D.C., who took part in the Hispanic caucus meeting, and told Newsweek the crisis has removed the distractions of the past.

"Pre-pandemic, if the Hispanic caucus organizers said, 'We're going to do this on Zoom,' work or driving or summer vacation would have interfered," Rodriguez said. "Would you have had 11,000 people watching? No, but now you have a captive audience, and people desire interacting with others."

Democratic officials said that a big factor in large numbers tuning into the convention is that Americans are becoming more comfortable with live video, in part because they have been forced to use it for communication during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Its become normalized to engage on video," Jorge Neri, senior director of public engagement for the Democratic National Convention Committee, told Newsweek. "I don't know if we could have done this in 2016. This is how people go to work, how they go to school, how they conduct everyday life now."

The convention planners say this new level of participation from Americans across the country helps demystify the convention process, and serves to elevate the focus on diversity and inclusion in which the Party takes great pride. They planned for this increase focus once a virtual convention became a necessity.

Some people will miss the pomp and circumstance that have been part and parcel of American political conventions from time immemorial. And both political parties will have to wait for post-convention surveys to see if they benefit from the typical "convention bump" from these virtual events.

There is one distinct advantage for the convention planners: they no longer have to arrange to get high-profile politicians in and out of the convention venues, with the attendant costs and challenges of transportation and security. The freedom from those restraints has allowed the Democratic planners to "bring in" those high-profile guests virtually, not just on the main stage, but also in smaller meetings like the caucuses.

Julian Castro spoke at the Hispanic caucus meeting, and Senator Cory Booker took part in the small business council along with Andrew Yang. Booker also joined the interfaith council meeting, and Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke at the Native American council meeting.

A surprising figure has emerged from early viewing statistics: The average viewer spent one hour on the convention site, which is also the average length of a caucus session. In this age of quick-bite TikTok videos, viewers sat in front of their computers or phones and watched entire convention sessions they never could have seen in years past.

Julissa Arce, an author and prominent activist who spoke on a convention panel in 2016, told Newsweek she remembered wondering then how many people would attend.

This year Arce has been vocal in criticizing the Biden campaign and organizers for not including more high-profile Latino voices like Julian Castro in the primetime programming when more people are watching. But after watching the Hispanic caucus meeting from home, she said the virtual convention viewership numbers offer an important lesson - future conventions should be livestreamed to provide more access for voters to participate and learn about a process that affects their lives.

"A lot of times we're not the voices in the room to be able to voice our opinions," Arce said, "so it's great to hear."

On Tuesday, Joe Biden made two virtual campaign stops to meet with Democrats from the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Florida.

According to the pool report, Biden was introduced by Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chair Nancy Mills and then by Senator Bob Casey, who cited county unemployment numbers around his state.

At the Florida event, where Biden was introduced by Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo, he hinted that conventions may have been changed forever.

"You're part of the most creative, inclusive convention we've ever had," Biden told the Florida delegates. "I doubt we'll ever go back to the same exact conventions we had in the past. It's a template for the future."

dnc on tv
Candidate bobbleheads sit in front of the television during a virtual DNC party overlooking the city on August 18, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The convention, which was once expected to draw 50,000 people to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is now taking place virtually due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Jeff Swensen/Getty