The final night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was decades in the making. After two prior presidential bids beginning in 1988, former Vice President Joe Biden for the first time accepted his party’s nomination on Thursday night. Amid the pandemic, the usual fanfare and the famous balloon drop were replaced instead with a quiet convention room in Biden’s home state of Delaware and a fireworks display.
Thursday’s programming sought to showcase Biden’s relatability and resilience, providing snapshots of his relationships with family members, colleagues and the everyday people he encounters.
“Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot,” Biden said in his acceptance speech. The contrast between Biden’s moral compass with that of President Donald Trump permeated the night with another politically diverse cast of guests, including eight 2020 Democratic primary rivals, making the case for Biden’s leadership.
The night also displayed a united front across the political spectrum and a promise to lead the country in a new direction.
Courting military families
The final night of the DNC highlighted Biden’s connection to military families in a move calculated to chip away at Trump’s support among veterans. Exit polling from 2016 showed veterans voted for Trump by a 2-to-1 margin over Hillary Clinton.
In one video clip, World War II veteran and lifelong Republican Edward Good identified himself as among those veterans who overwhelmingly voted for Trump four years ago, but said he now believes Trump “has been the worst president we ever had.”
“I’ll be glad to see him go,” Good said.
As the father of a veteran who served in Iraq, Biden can relate to military families in a way Trump can’t, and his decades in politics have brought him face-to-face many times with service members who shared their personal stories with him, both of which were played up in Thursday night’s programming.
In one video segment, Lakesha Cole, the wife of a Marine, described the challenge of enduring multiple deployments. Her and her husband’s interview was interspersed with clips of former second lady Jill Biden speaking to the importance of advocating for military members and their families.
The segment also heard from Democratic leaders who have served in the military.
Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth recounted her journey, with her husband’s assistance, relearning to walk after both her legs were amputated following an explosion during a 2004 tour in Iraq. She also delivered a searing rebuke of Trump, saying he “doesn’t deserve to call himself commander-in-chief for another four minutes — let alone another four years.”
Former Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, spoke of his own military service, where he could have been kicked out because of his sexuality, and the “political courage” that changed laws and policy. He counted Biden among those who pushed for that change.
John Lewis tribute highlights work on civil rights that remains
A civil rights leader who was beaten by police and arrested 40 times during the Civil Rights Movement, late Georgia Rep. John Lewis spent the majority of his life fighting to end voter suppression, racial violence and systemic racism. A video montage paid tribute to Lewis’ advocacy work both as a civil rights organizer and as a member of Congress.
Lewis’ death in July came during another racial reckoning for the country, amid national protests against several highly publicized killings of Black people. Since 2013, a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act remains invalidated, allowing nine mostly Southern states to change their election laws without federal approval.
“All of these decades later, while he and others of his generation achieved much, we’re still fighting against police brutality and fighting for our voting rights,” said Rev. Raphael Warnock, a pastor with Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that hosted Lewis’ funeral, said in the DNC tribute video. “So we best honor him by continuing to fight the good fights that he fought.”
Challenging Trump on vote-by-mail
The topic of mail-in and absentee voting was a recurring feature of the convention amid the president’s continued attacks and claims of fraud, but the DNC dedicated a whole block to the issue on Thursday night, beginning with a sketch and then a plea from. comedian Sarah Cooper, who has gained a large online following for her lip syncing performances of Trump’s remarks.
The sketch played, for laughs, one of Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting, but then Cooper delivered her own response to the issue. “Nothing is more dangerous to our democracy than his attacks on mail-in voting in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.
California and Michigan secretaries of state Alex Padilla and Jocelyn Benson stressed the importance of vote-by-mail access and encouraged voters to make a plan to ensure their votes are counted.
“Millions of Americans have been voting absentee for decades. Donald Trump, his family, his staff, they all vote by mail,” Benson said. “In states like Colorado, Utah and Oregon, voters have been voting by mail for years. Republicans and Democrats agree it is safe.”
Trump has dismissed voting by mail as fraudulent, despite a lack of evidence to support this claim, and he opposes efforts to increase funding to states and counties to help with elections amid the pandemic and for the U.S. Postal Service in order to help them meet increased demand as a record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail in November.
Presenting a unified party with 2020 candidates
The crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field included a range of candidates, men and women from different generations, of different races and ethnicities, from across the political spectrum. But eight of them came together to stand behind Biden to lead the party forward in November.
In a remote, panel-style discussion moderated by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, the former candidates shared some of their favorite moments with Biden. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar recounted a night delivering a floor speech in the Senate to “a completely empty chamber.” Afterward Biden, who had been watching on television, called to show his support, she said. “That kinda goes to not only his kindness for calling me and being a mentor, but it also goes to how much he cares about our government and what people are saying.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren remembered remarks Biden gave on the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. “At some point in that speech he shifted to the parent who had lost a child, to the man who had lost a wife, to someone who had experienced loss very personally,” she said.
Later, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a late addition to the Democratic primary who didn’t last long in the race, spoke to his own changing political loyalties as he has identified as Republican, Democrat and Independent. He delivered a five-minute condemnation of Trump’s business and political record, calling for a president with “integrity.”
Each painted a picture of a man with whom they might not agree on every policy, but who they respect and trust to lead the country forward. Democrats need to build a big tent, bringing together many disparate factions of the center and left in order to win the election, and the repeat appearances from many of Biden’s former primary rivals are designed to encourage voters who might not be excited by the prospect of a Biden presidency but who can agree that four more years of Trump are not in their best interests.
Showing Biden’s character to voters
Personal stories about Biden the man, not the politician, were featured throughout the convention, but were a particular focus of Thursday night’s programming, honing in on Biden’s character, rather than the work he’s done as a politician.
Thirteen-year-old Brayden Harrington shared how Biden helped him feel better about his stutter and recommended materials to help him improve his speech. “Without Joe Biden, I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Harrington said. “It was really amazing to hear that someone like me became vice president.”
Biden has publicly shared his struggles with stuttering growing up and his efforts to overcome it, and a biographical video montage cast him as a resilient fighter in the face of his speech impediment. It also shared insight into the personal tragedies he’s endured during his lifetime, including the loss of his son, Beau, to cancer in 2015.
The segments ranged from inspiring to light-hearted, painting a more complete picture of a man who has been in the public eye for decades but who many voters are only just coming to know.
In one of the lighter moments of the evening, Biden’s four granddaughters talked about how he tries to sneak bites of their ice cream, how he calls them every day, and will always pick up, no matter what he’s doing, when they call him. “He always calls with the same energy even after he’s done 15 interviews in a row,” said Maisy Biden, the daughter of Biden’s son, Hunter.
Biden promises change
Biden opened his acceptance speech with the words of Ella Baker, a Black civil rights activist: “Give people light and they will find the way.”
Biden sought to strike a balance between criticizing the current president and highlighting the many crises the country is currently facing, and offering a message of hope for the future. “I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness,” he said.
Biden compared the challenges the country is facing now to past periods of great struggle in the U.S. — the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s — to highlight the country’s ability to persevere. And he invited voters to envision a road forward with him rather than a road of more hardship with Trump.
“All elections are important. But we know in our bones this one is more consequential,” he said. “We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided; a path of shadow and suspicion. Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite; a path of hope and light.”
The words were reminiscent of then-candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 DNC speech, during which he called for decency, compassion and the need “to keep the American promise alive,” a message that helped spark a boost in voter enthusiasm and record turnout among young people and people of color, leading Obama to a historic victory.