By BENJAMIN SIEGEL, ABC News
(MILWAUKEE) — Ryan Sorenson was excited to celebrate the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in Milwaukee this summer as an official delegate for Joe Biden.
But with the party scuttling plans for an in-person convention because of the coronavirus, Sorenson is wearing his foam cheese-head in his living room instead of the Fiserv Forum, and watched the party’s first-ever virtual roll call from his couch.
“You see a lot of clips running on the news from previous conventions, and it’s basically a big party,” he said. “Just watching it on TV seems a little different.”
Democrats across the country are adjusting to the format of this year’s convention — nowhere more than in Wisconsin, where delegates who looked forward to hosting the party have traded banners, flags and floor passes for lawn signs and videoconference links.
While they quickly acknowledged that 50,000 people wouldn’t be coming to Milwaukee once the coronavirus started spreading this spring, some delegates held out hope for a hybrid convention that would include in-person events.
At one point, there was even discussion of a socially distant event at Miller Park, the home of the Milwaukee Brewers, before the convention was downsized to its current form.
“I would’ve loved to have actually experienced all the balloons and confetti dropping on the crowds,” Chris Walton, the chairman of the Milwaukee County Democratic Party, told ABC News. “But, you know, this is 2020.”
Walton, who praised the safety-related convention changes, has been watching caucus meetings on his phone — he’ll address the LGBTQ Caucus on Thursday — and with friends at night.
While “the Zoom calls work great,” Dave Boetcher, a Biden delegate who serves on the Waunakee County School Board, told ABC News, the format “does kill some of the ability for delegates to talk to each other.”
A veteran of the 2012 DNC in Charlotte, Boetcher lamented missing out on the opportunity to get to know other delegates, schmooze and learn more about the party in other states.
In Charlotte, he also worked with a team of Democratic and Republican delegates to build a home for a veteran — one of the many activities that take place on the sidelines of official convention programs.
The delegate experience “is all about building relationships that are going to help you organize in the future,” Alexander Kostal, a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, told ABC News. “I think that’s what we’re all kind of doing, is searching for a way to build those relationships in a somewhat less personal online experience.”
The lifelong Milwaukee resident has organized his own events — hosting a Zoom hangout on Monday night for Sanders supporters affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America.
“You kind of have to get a little creative,” he said.
Still, the new format has its benefits, Boetcher added: less time traveling between caucus meetings at different convention sites. Thanks to the virtual format, delegates can listen in on even more meetings.
Katie Van Zeeland, a delegate from Appleton, Wisconsin, was gearing up for her first convention, after getting involved in politics ahead of the 2016 election.
“I don’t know what I’m missing, so I can’t be sad about something I don’t really know,” she said of an in-person convention.
The virtual programming, she said, has given her an opportunity to connect with other family members who wouldn’t have joined her at the DNC.
“Politics is a tricky thing to talk about,” Van Zeeland said. “To be able to have my brother watching the same thing as me, and paying attention, and talking about it is kind of cool.”
Laura Yoder, a Biden delegate from Waukesha County and a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has enjoyed the Wisconsin delegation’s virtual breakfasts, which has included appearances from prominent lawmakers and celebrities — from Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Doug Jones of Alabama, to actor Adam Scott.
She’s also been surprised by the number of friends who have tuned in to the primetime programming, and who have asked how to participate in the daytime events.
“The convention just seems more accessible to them because everyone’s just in the same boat,” she said.
More than 19.7 million people watched the first night of the DNC across all television networks, according to Nielsen, compared to 26 million Americans four years ago. (The Nielsen numbers don’t include any views on digital streaming platforms.)
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