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Hubert H. Humphrey and Muriel Humphrey wave at the podium of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Photo by Getty Images. Illustration by Vanessa Dennis/PBS NewsHour

The pandemic popped the balloon drop. Here's why we might not miss it

For decades worth of convention-goers, an indoor blizzard of red, white and blue has been an indelible showstopper. When thousands of balloons cascade to the floor, it's a moment when pure spectacle takes over political persuasion.

The confetti, banners, flashy garb donned by delegates, and yes, balloons, are all part of the fanfare — visual pizazz designed to give viewers a thrill amid all the hot air. But this year, there will be no balloon drops to give the conventions some pop.

The tradition is a fond, fleeting moment of bliss. But balloon drops are heavily orchestrated affairs that take months to plan. "I love the challenge of coordinating the balloon drops to the music and what is happening on the stage below," balloon artist Treb Heining, who has orchestrated balloon drops for every Republican National Convention since 1988, wrote in an email. He and his team also did the drops for the Democratic conventions in 2016 and 2000, and consulted on others.

In the moment, it's "almost like playing a piano — balancing the different sizes of balloons, confetti and streamers to give everyone (including myself) a goosebump or two," he added.

Neither Democratic nor Republican camps would say in advance how they intended to end their extended virtual pitches to the country's voters. (Democrats officially ended their convention with surprise fireworks outside of where Biden accepted the party's nomination in Delaware.) But during the coronavirus pandemic, balloon drops — in the traditional sense — are out. There are no large, in-person crowds to wow. No anticipation prompting necks to crane toward the rafters. No need for TV cameras to capture the reaction — authentic or canned — of the nominees and their families (like a former president who tossed and kicked large balloons into the crowd). But also, you don't have to worry about the balloons missing their cue.

Heining notably was not involved in the 2004 convention when 100,000 balloons didn't drop at the right time. During the incident, CNN accidentally aired the producer's frustrated audio behind the scenes: "Go balloons! Go balloons! Standby confetti," which quickly crescendoed into "What the f*** are you guys doing up there?!" The scene was punctuated with a recording of Van Halen's Sammy Hagar wailing "We'll get higher and higher" in the background.

Once a balloon vendor at Disneyland at age 15, Heining said "balloons have a universal 'magic' that people love, especially in large quantities."

"I believe this is because most people have a difficult time inflating and tying even one balloon, so when they see the large waves cascading down for minutes at a time, it plays on the inner child in all of us and makes the challenge of listening to the sometimes long-winded political rhetoric all worth it," he added.

For decades, conventions have been drained of any suspense over who's going to be presidential nominee from either political party. Instead, since the 1960s, the conventions have been a "big advertising platform" for both parties, said Julian E. Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University.

And this isn't necessarily a negative thing, he added.

Conventions get the party's message out, showcasing and — for voters who haven't kept tabs of every moment in a campaign — introducing the candidate, Zelizer said. The events also highlight different voices within the party "to send a kind of broad message about not only this is our candidate, but this is what the party represents."

The accompanying visuals — and the decisions behind them — are a big part of the package. Careful attention is paid to how things look and sound, Zelizer said.

There are considerations for where delegates are positioned, what they're wearing, how a candidate appears in front of a backdrop. And the balloon drop allows conventions to build to a climactic ending. It's like "an exclamation point," Zelizer said. All these decisions are also made with TV cameras in mind.

Balloons and confetti fall following a speech by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who accepted the nomination at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Those choices are still happening. On the first night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered his speech in front of a stack of firewood. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, appeared at a literal crossroads, showing support for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. For the Republican convention next week, the St. Louis couple who were captured in photographs brandishing their guns as Black Lives Matter protesters walked past are featured speakers on the roster.

Who isn't seen or heard has also been a talking point of this convention. Some have criticized the DNC for having too few Latino speakers this year. Julian Castro, the only Latino presidential candidate this election year, was not a featured speaker.

The least charitable view of conventions is that they amount to one giant infomercial. The pandemic has given that argument more fuel this year, as organizers moved the operations outside of convention halls, in favor of slick, pre-recorded production.

But "it's still really important for voters to have a concentrated period of time to see and hear and learn what one party will offer them if they win the White House," Zelizer added.

And in a year where there are overlapping crises, history shows that an orchestrated convention moment can also backfire.

The 1968 Democratic convention was memorable for what happened inside and outside. Held in Chicago, the convention grounds became the site of anti-Vietnam War protests, which were met with a violent crackdown by thousands of state and federal officers. On the convention floor, tensions broke out over the party's position on the war. The convention occurred months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. And Black Americans had been protesting the racist, structural inequalities that persisted after the passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Contrast all of that with Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey's campaign theme song: "Happy Days Are Here Again." What appeared to be a Pollyanna song choice seemed tone deaf amid the unrest.

Hubert Humphrey's accepts nomination at 1968 Democratic National Convention. In his speech, he called for unity. Video by Face the Nation

"He very much wanted to present himself as an optimistic candidate," Zelizer said, but "it didn't sound good when there was chaos on the streets outside and on the floor."

This year, both parties will have to be careful not to celebrate too much, he added. Zelizer said Democrats can undercut their message if the balance between a moment of genuine crisis and celebration doesn't feel right.

Xochitl Hinojosa, DNC communications director, said striking that balance was on organizers' minds when putting together this year's convention.

"Given the pandemic, given the economic downturn, and given the racial unrest right now, it is hard for families to celebrate," she said, adding that the party wanted to make sure it addressed all the crises during the convention and show how people were impacted. (On the first night, for instance, George Floyd's brothers Philonise and Rodney presided over a moment of silence. The third night included video montages on gun violence, climate change, domestic violence and immigrants' rights.) "At the same time, I think that this convention has given you hope," Hinojosa said.

To her, that hope stemmed from seeing up-and-coming leaders within the party stepping up; seeing former President Barack Obama and Sen. Kamala Harris, two people who have made history, speak; and "hope for the future" in showcasing "the steady leadership of Joe Biden."

But most of all, the overarching theme of the Democratic convention has been unity.

Democratic delegates from all 50 U.S. states and seven territories cast their official votes for the 2020 presidential nominee during a virtual roll call. Video by PBS NewsHour

When it came to the roll call vote, Democrats had to rethink a moment that is official party business and doesn't always get attention from broadcast networks (who may have pundits talking over it). Normally, delegates from each state and U.S. territory would officially cast their nominating votes from the convention floor, each state representative stepping up to a microphone and announcing the exact number of votes they're casting for each candidate.

"Someone watching it on television doesn't necessarily feel the excitement that is happening with the roll call," Hinojosa said. "The only people that really feel it are the folks, the delegates, in the room."

But at this year's convention, the roll call became its own tableau of local flavor and pride. Some of it pretaped, some live, it provided an opportunity for viewers to connect to all corners of the country. Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell spoke with the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in the background, invoking the memory and work of the late Rep. John Lewis. Meatpacking plant employee Geraldine Waller reminded viewers that essential workers "are human beings, not robots, not disposable." Rhode Island — the "calamari comeback state" — featured a chef holding a plate of squid, and a message of economic flexibility during the downturn.

"When you see people from all across this country also going through this pandemic," Hinojosa said, "you see the resilience of our country through a television."

A Secret Service agent surrounded by balloons that were released following Hillary Clinton's keynote address at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

Journalist and opinion columnist Jonathan Capehart has covered every political convention since 2000. He loved watching the conventions as a kid because of all the spectacle. The scores of people crowded into an arena. The speeches. The buttons. The delegates in funny hats (like the Robert Dole supporter who wore a papier-mâché "Ohio" pineapple hat at the 1996 Republican convention).

But as a journalist, Capehart said, you can see how the conventions are "all pre-baked."

"Everything is scripted down to the last word: everyone who speaks, when they speak, that they say is all controlled," he said. And now, the pandemic has forced both parties to rethink how they approach conventions, he added.

For at least the Democratic convention, it was "two concentrated hours of a different kind of spectacle," Capehart said.

For the Democrats, that meant fitting in montages, speeches and performances within a two-hour window. The DNC opened with Biden's grandchildren all reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Celebrity hosts helped guide the program each night. And the speeches, bless them, were shorter. Without an audience cheering and clapping to interrupt the flow of talk, what would have been an hourlong speech could clock in at 20 minutes.

"And what [the speakers] had to say was infinitely more interesting," Capehart said. "It was shorter, punchier and more to the point."

Kristin Urquiza, who recently lost her father to COVID-19, delivered this speech on the first night of the Democratic National Convention. Video by PBS NewsHour

Capehart pointed to Kristin Urquiza, a woman who recounted how her father died from COVID-19 and blames President Donald Trump. Capeheart said Urquiza's "real raw emotion" would have been lost had it been presented in a much bigger arena. Her speech would have prompted lots of applause for certain lines, Capehart said, "but as we've seen many times, sometimes the applause drowns out the message that's coming next."

So far, RNC organizers have been tight-lipped about how they're going to approach a virtual convention next week. But there are some details. Trump is expected to speak from the White House at the end of the convention. Vice President Mike Pence will speak a day before from Baltimore. The convention theme is "Honoring the Great American Story." There may be fireworks near the Washington Monument to cap off the week.

There's also the question of how Trump, who likes to energize a crowd inside a venue, will do without a live audience.

"A lot is made of the fact that the president comes from reality TV," Capehart said, adding that the last four years has shown how much Trump loves spectacle.

"But spectacle for him is standing inside an arena with a lot of supporters laughing and cheering and chanting various lines. And he's not going to have that," he said. "How are they going to recreate this spectacle enough for him to be able to perform?"

Whatever happens, the pandemic has upended the pageantry, but also offered a new path. And there's no one saying you can't make your own private balloon drop at home.

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