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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris talks with viewers on the third night of the Democratic National Convention on August 19, 2020.
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Ordinary Americans stole the show at this year’s Democratic convention

“I spoke from the heart. I guess they picked me.”

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Michele Beebe’s Cookie Monster scrubs made her message about wanting her “kiddos” to go back to school — but not until it’s safe — go viral. “It’s kind of sad not to see the kiddos when we’re back, but I know that that will change,” she said during the first night of the Democratic National Convention.

Beebe, a school nurse from Texas, appeared at the convention virtually, by invitation from her local teachers association. The 43-year-old mother of three took part in one of the opening segments of the convention in an interview with actress Eva Longoria Baston, and the scrubs her husband helped her pick out (and that her son “loves”) were not only a topic of discussion on Twitter but became a joke on host Stephen Colbert’s show. Beebe described the whole experience to me as “surreal.”

This year, the big star of the Democratic National Convention wasn’t some up-and-coming politician. Instead, ordinary Americans appeared this week alongside some of the Democratic Party’s biggest stars — Michelle and Barack Obama, Joe and Jill Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. All conventions try to incorporate ordinary voters and activists, but this year’s virtual convention leveled regular folks up to the importance of politicians. It was these people who made some of the most memorable moments at the DNC by far.

Early in the week, viewers got to know Jacquelyn Brittany, the New York security guard who nominated Biden for the White House after meeting him in an elevator earlier this year, and Kristin Urquiza, the young woman whose father died of Covid-19. “The coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas: the America Donald Trump lives in, and the America that my father died in,” she said on night one.

On Thursday, the last hour of the convention featured a heartbreakingly sweet video from Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old boy who, like Biden, has a stutter and met the former vice president at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “He told me we’re members of the same club. We stutter,” Harrington said.

And there was a roll call, which in the digital format translated to a series of charming and diverse presentations from across the country as states and territories cast their votes for the nomination.

Democrats Hold Unprecedented Virtual Convention
People applaud on screens during the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention on August 18.
DNCC/Getty Images

There’s something powerful in those people telling their own stories of what’s happening in the country. Instead of Joe Biden talking about Jeff from Missouri who was worried about losing his health care, isn’t it better to hear from Jeff himself? The unemployment rate isn’t a number, it’s your neighbor. Domestic violence isn’t a statistic, it’s a woman who experiences it firsthand, as viewers heard in a voiceover of a video shown on Wednesday: “The first episode was a slap to the face, and he broke my eardrum.”

The all-virtual setting captured something that felt new about the “ordinary American.” It’s one thing for someone who isn’t accustomed to public speaking to talk for 10 minutes in front of an audience; it’s another thing to send a 30-second video from their phones or set up a video chat from their living rooms. Democrats wanted to highlight what’s at stake right now: everyday lives and livelihoods. What better way to do that than showcasing those lives and livelihoods up close?

“I spoke from the heart. I guess they picked me.”

The convention featured non-politicians in two main formats: virtual videos and interviews that had a more formal touch, and interstitials of voters talking to the camera about a variety of issues and themes.

Those who took part in the more formal sit-downs were often people organizers sought out and who have publicly talked about certain issues in the past. That’s the case for Steve Gomez, a 39-year-old man from Arizona. Gomez’s son Anthony, now 4, was born with a heart condition in 2015 and wound up needing a heart transplant, which was covered by the Affordable Care Act. After Trump was elected in 2017, Gomez began talking about his family’s experience publicly, first on Facebook and then in more public settings.

When the DNC reached out to him in July and asked him to participate in a virtual roundtable discussion about health care, it was an obvious yes, to get his message out about protecting the ACA. “It’s my son and it’s families like ours,” he told me. “This administration that we’re currently trying to deal with is attacking families like ours when it comes to health care.”

The day we talked, two days after Gomez’s segment aired, he was at work in the field driving between construction sites. “This was never my plan,” he said of his foray into the political sphere.

Democrats Hold Unprecedented Virtual Convention
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a virtual roundtable on health care at the 2020 Democratic National Convention on August 18.
DNCC/Getty Images

For other people who showed up in the convention, the experience was more serendipitous. In June, the DNC set up a hub for people to record and submit videos of themselves responding to different prompts — explaining why they’re voting for Biden, why the election is important to them, what they want to see in the next president.

“We thought it was a huge opportunity for people to really hear from each other and use the megaphone of the convention to introduce Americans from around the country to each other,” said Lindsay Holst, a senior adviser to the convention. “There’s something really unifying about seeing how other people are getting through this.”

Heading into the convention, there were more than 1,000 videos submitted, and since it began, there’s been an influx of more.

When people submitted their videos, they were informed that their content could be used, but there were no guarantees — meaning some of the people who appeared didn’t know they were going to appear until they showed up onscreen.

DeMarcus Gilliard, a 34-year-old Marine veteran, sent in a video of himself talking about his support for Biden while sitting in his car over the summer. “I took an oath to support, uphold, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. And I know that Joe Biden in his years of public service took a similar oath,” he said at the time.

He had an inkling it might wind up being used at some point during the week because organizers had reached out to him with some follow-up, but he wasn’t sure exactly how. His video became the lead-up to former Secretary of State John Kerry’s Tuesday address.

“I had uploaded a video a few weeks ago just speaking my mind about what I know about Joe, and I spoke from the heart. I guess they picked me,” he said. “I was taken off guard in the best way possible.”

Gilliard, who now works for a cybersecurity company in Los Angeles, volunteered for Beto O’Rourke in the Democratic primary and took part in one of the campaign’s podcast episodes. He considers this just another step on his journey into being more active in politics and elections. “I just felt compelled to use my voice. Why stay silent when you can say something?” he said.

“I think we should just do it like this all the time”

The Democrats’ 2020 message is a somewhat awkward mix of rah-rah and doom. They’re trying to fire people up with excitement about the future while also delivering a serious warning about what’s at stake. Get inspired by images of the 2017 Women’s March, but also think of how bad you’ll feel if you’re out marching against Trump in January 2021. From the roll call, some people will remember the Rhode Island calamari, and others will remember the parents of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was beaten and murdered in 1998, casting the votes for Wyoming.

Highlighting ordinary people and less prominent figures is a way to strike a balance on the messaging and blend lighter elements with more serious ones. It also sends a lot of different signals, even ones that won’t be perceived by everyone. (And, obviously, ones that are planned.)

Laura Packard, a 44-year-old cancer survivor who lives in Denver, was featured in the health care roundtable with Gomez. “Ever since I was diagnosed, every night, I’d go to bed concerned about what news I would get in the morning. And even still, even today, they’re still trying to take away our health care. Even during a pandemic,” she said during a pretaped interview with Biden.

Packard isn’t at all new on the political circuit — she’s been active in Democratic politics for years and now works as a consultant. When organizers reached out to her to participate, they almost certainly knew she could be a compelling speaker and that her story would draw people in. (She told me she wanted to “make sure people understood how much is at stake this fall.”) Organizers also recognized most people probably wouldn’t know she wasn’t just someone plucked off the street or have a sense of her background, but perhaps someone important might — as in, the president. In 2017, Trump blocked her on Twitter after she tweeted at him about health care.

One of the more delightful standouts from the roll call was Maine Rep. Craig Hickman, who announced his state’s votes from the farm he runs with his husband. “My American dream? I’m living it. A 25-acre organic farm on a lake, a roadside farm stand, and a bed-and-breakfast. My husband and I aren’t corporate tycoons. We just want to make an honest living and feed our community,” he said in the video shown on Tuesday.

Hickman, 52, is originally from Milwaukee, where the convention was supposed to be held, and his appearance is a nod not only to Maine but also to his hometown. He told me filming was a bit tricky — they wanted to get the barn and corn in, but they also had to be within reach of extension cords — and they ultimately had to scrap getting the goat in the frame. (Luckily, the Montana farmer had cows in her background.)

“I think we should do it like this all the time, even if it’s a virtual convention,” he said. “The roll call should be shot across America.”

This is a way to draw people into the process and highlight one of Biden’s strengths

One of Biden’s most important political calling cards is that he is good with people. His ability to connect with ordinary Americans has been central to his presidential pitch. In the midst of a pandemic that is keeping everyone apart, highlighting that is not an easy thing to do. Part of the convention’s format is a way to address that.

“The DNC is showcasing who will be top of mind for Joe Biden when he is making his most important decisions in the Oval Office: the people,” said campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin in a statement. “Everyday Americans have shown leadership, resolve and grit in this crisis while the Trump administration has waved the white flag.”

There are indications that the RNC is likely to take a similar route. According to a report from CNN, the president’s aides are searching out regular people to tell some of their personal stories.

At the DNC, the virtual, people-heavy format was a way to draw people together in a way that felt comforting and unique. Most of us have been unable to go about our everyday lives for months. The experience is both entirely collective and incredibly isolating. We’re all in this together, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. The convention played into that, as my colleague Emily VanDerWerff explained:

We can talk about the individual aesthetic choices of the 2020 DNC’s filmmaking because it is the rare live event where those aesthetics have had to be carefully considered and thought out. But everything about them is overwhelmed by the reason they have to exist. To watch this convention is to confront, on live television, everything that has changed and to long for a world that existed just six months ago.

Would a people-heavy virtual convention work so well in normal times? It’s not clear — but then again, in normal times, a virtual gathering wouldn’t be happening.

The thing about lifting up ordinary people in the public sphere is that they bring real, personal moments that formal trappings don’t always allow, even if sometimes orchestrated. That Rhode Island calamari chef who became a viral sensation? Turns out he’s not even sure he’ll vote for Biden. Jacquelyn Brittany, the security guard who nominated Biden, had no idea that’s the path she would take when she blurted out, “I love you,” on an elevator ride with the former vice president back in January.

The pandemic has revealed all of us to be who we truly are, which is, at the core, profoundly human. We’ve spent all this time in a charade in our public and professional lives, pretending there’s not a sick child at home we’re worried about or a dog we think might need to go out, or, honestly, pining for a pair of sweatpants we would much rather be wearing. We’re all experiencing this together, so why not be open about it? Even showcase it?

Politics is ultimately about people, and this week, we’ve really been able to see that.

On the convention’s opening night, after the introductory prayer, the first person to appear onscreen, after actress Eva Longoria Baston, was Scott Richardson, a restaurant owner in Pennsylvania. He voted for Trump in 2016 and met Biden as part of a business roundtable in Pennsylvania in June. During the pandemic, his restaurant’s sales have fallen by 40 percent.

When I spoke with Richardson, he told me how Biden won him over. At the roundtable, a woman talked about losing her mother to Covid-19, and Biden’s reaction really got to him. “I can tell you from someone that’s been there, there’s going to be a point in your life where the memory of your mom is going to bring a smile to your face rather than a tear to your eye,” he recalls Biden saying.

He told me how surprised he was to be featured so early in the convention and was generally pretty bemused — he’s an “average Joe, only an average Scott.” He described how his personal experience with Biden moved him.

“Have you ever been someplace that something outside of yourself puts you in there for a reason?” he said. “That was my day; I was put there for a reason to hear him say that, to have me be so touched by it that I am 100 percent behind him, to the point where I’m taking a business that we’ve had for 31 years that I’m putting out there.”

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