What to watch for on the final night of the Democratic National Convention

Key Points
  • Democratic nominee Joe Biden will give the most important speech of his career Thursday night.
  • In order to break through, Biden needs to offer the party faithful more policy plans than they've seen so far this week.
  • The rest of the evening's lineup is packed with a younger generation of Biden-esque lawmakers, moderates with cross-party appeal who can help Biden carry out his plan to win the race in the Midwest. 
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic presidential nominee, stands on stage during the Democratic National Convention at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.
Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – It's Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's big night, and he will deliver an acceptance speech that represents the culmination of four decades during which Biden has either considered running or officially run for the presidency at least nine times.

Now, at 77 years old, he's finally the party's nominee. But the party that Biden leads today has, in many ways, moved beyond him.

Biden's challenge on Thursday night will be to prove that he can still capture the hearts of Democrats in 2020, more than 40 years after he first arrived in Washington as a young senator. Democrats today are younger, more diverse, more progressive and, after four years of President Donald Trump, more skeptical of government than ever before.

So how do you rally them to action when they're sitting at home, and you're standing alone on a stage in Wilmington, Delaware? One answer is that Biden will need to offer Democratic voters a concrete policy picture of what he'll do if he's elected president.

Watch Live: The Democratic National Convention

A Biden White House

So far this week, viewers who've tuned in to the nightly telethon-style Democratic convention speeches have heard a lot about what a great guy Biden is, as a father and a husband, as a legislator and a vice president.

But they haven't heard a lot about what a Biden administration would look like, what he would do on his first day in office, and what hard choices Biden would make in order to tackle the three concurrent crises that are engulfing the country: the coronavirus pandemic, the economic devastation caused by the virus, and the once-in-a-generation social unrest that still roils American cities on a near-nightly basis.  

Would Biden shut down the U.S. economy again, federalize testing and issue a nationwide mask mandate – all controversial moves – if that meant the country could achieve something more akin to Western Europe's low coronavirus infection rates? 

How long would Biden artificially float U.S. industries like travel and tourism, but also individual businesses, that might never return to their pre-pandemic business models? Would he extend expanded unemployment benefits into 2021 if there's still no vaccine next spring?

Would Biden consider putting some of his bolder (read: more expensive) policy proposals, like the new green economic plan, on hold until the nation recovers somewhat from the coronavirus recession?

These are all questions that voters want to know the answers to, and which Biden, who has so far resisted tough sit-down interviews, could begin to spell out on Thursday night. 

The new, new Democrats

Another thing to watch for Thursday night are the speakers ahead of Biden, who together represent a very Biden-esque view of the future of the Democratic party. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin are all on deck Thursday night. 

Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg responds to a question during a forum held by gun safety organizations the Giffords group and March For Our Lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, October 2, 2019.
Steve Marcus | Reuters

These are not the progressive all-stars of the party – there are no "squad" members, no especially progressive lawmakers, or YouTube activists. These are the next generation of pragmatic lawmakers willing to reach across the aisle, updated for a new century perhaps, but still the kind of people with whom Biden identifies. 

They are also all Democrats who can appeal to the independent voters and blue-collar Democrats that Biden believes will win him the White House. The former vice president has said before that he intends to win this race in the Midwest, meaning not necessarily in places like Florida, North Carolina and the Sun Belt. Thursday's lineup reflects Biden's path to victory. 

Bloomberg returns

There has been much hand-wringing in Democratic circles ever since it was announced that former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democratic primary candidate Michael Bloomberg would be given a prominent speaking role on the biggest night of the convention. 

On one hand, this is surely a thank you for the millions of dollars of his own fortune that Bloomberg has poured into Democratic campaign coffers over the past four years. He was the biggest single outside spender on House Democrats in 2018 when they reclaimed the majority and proceeded to kneecap the remainder of Trump's first-term agenda. 

Bloomberg has also pledged to spend big on Democratic candidates this year, although that money has yet to materialize, leading some Democratic campaign finance pros to wonder when Bloomberg will start cutting checks. But so far, high-profile Democratic Senate challengers have raised a lot of money on their own, without Bloomberg's help. 

Still, the promise of Bloomberg's help down the road looms large in the minds of Democratic donors and campaign strategists. And as someone who shares Biden's deep disdain for Trump, it's easy to see how he fits into the lineup. 

Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg delivers remarks during a campaign rally on February 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Brett Carlsen | Getty Images

Will any of it matter?

The last factor to watch for Thursday night won't really be visible for another few days, but clues will emerge Thursday: Does all this work by Democrats, and all this pillorying of Trump and speeches by Biden and Harris and Obama make any difference to voters? Does it move the needle at all? 

Historically, presidential candidates have come to expect a bump in the polls following their party conventions, But this year isn't like any in history. And while traditional TV viewership of the convention is down about 25% over the 2016 Democratic National Convention, organizers say this week's online viewership has more than made up for the drop in cable and network eyeballs. 

Polling over the coming days may bear this out, or it may suggest that virtual conventions are just that, virtually as effective as a traditional nominating convention, but still missing something. 

The only consolation for Democrats may be that if the virtual convention format falls short for them, then it will likely fall short for Republicans next week, too. If that's the case, then by early September, the race for the White House could be right back where it was last week: With Biden holding a steady, but far from solid, lead over Trump.