Underneath the buttons and hats, past the strategically placed signs waving in the arena, the conventions look a lot different. It is, of course, impossible for media to cover every aspect of political conventions. But because of a long-standing narrative that dominates media coverage of these events, what happens on the scene is inevitably distinct from what is broadcast on TV.
Because I study political communication -- and what else are the conventions but the ultimate example of political communication? -- I jumped at a last-minute opportunity to attend my first convention in person. And what I can say is that even knowing all the ins and outs of these overly staged and scripted events, being in Charlotte for the DNC gave me a more nuanced perspective. I will likely be digesting all that I saw and heard for weeks, so there may be more blogs from me on this topic. But here's what it looked like from this attendee.
On the ground
I knew the area would be secure, but there were a surprising number of police and enormous barricade gates preventing attendees from getting around. This was further complicated by numerous protests, particularly on Tuesday. At one intersection, pro-life supporters were rallying on one side, while on the other side Planned Parenthood supporters shouted in protest (see Comedy Central's take on the event here). We had trouble getting transportation because protests would pop up and force intersections to be blocked. But there was plenty to look at as we wandered around Charlotte trying to find our bus. Celebrities were everywhere, posing for pictures and giving autographs, from Jeff Bridges ("the Dude") to Ashley Judd to Chris Matthews. Vendors selling shirts (I saw one with Barack Obama sitting in the Oval Office with the statement, "This chair is taken") and buttons lined the streets outside the convention center. Even random "acts of culture" popped up on street corners; the one I saw featured men dressed as '90s valley girls singing and dancing.
At our hotel
I think every room in Charlotte, and within a 20-mile radius, had to have been booked last week. We got lucky and were only about five miles out of town at the same hotel as the Delaware delegates. I spotted one of my former students in the lobby, who informed me he was a delegate. He and the other delegates prized their credentials, which got them on the floor and in the front row. The hotel was also where we picked up our credentials each morning. These were very tightly controlled, and one staffer told me they were actually locked in a bank vault until that morning. Every morning, a huge selection of print newspapers and magazines were provided in the lobby. Some published special convention editions just for attendees. This, coupled with sparse WiFi access at many Charlotte locations, meant I read more print news than online that week for the first time since I can remember.
In the convention hall
Although the caucuses and other meetings held at the convention hall were open to the public, there was always a line and of course lots of security to get into the building. But this was the major hub of activity during the day (which is why live media shots at the arena during the day look like no one was there). It was here where people could buy memorabilia and mingle with big names. I met James Carville at his book signing, where he doodled on paper in between signing books. And while sitting in an open seating area, I realized Gloria Allred -- the outspoken victims'-rights attorney -- was sitting right behind me. As I saw regularly here, she politely posed for pictures with delegates and attendees before saying she needed to get back to work.
In the arena
I visited the arena before speeches and was there every night for most of the speeches. The enormity of the place was astounding, particularly when empty. We had a birds-eye view of the proceedings (meaning we sat in the rafters) but the energy was palpable even there. When it came time for the speeches, the arena could be very loud or you could hear a pin drop depending on the speaker. This was, not surprisingly, more likely with the big speakers, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but the intimacy of the venue was most amplified during Michelle Obama's speech. Joe Biden, in an astute rhetorical move, even lowered his voice at key moments, resulting in the audience quieting down as well. How the audience plays on screen is key to these events, and the signage was central to that goal. Regularly, attendees were handed signs (e.g., "Fired up | Ready for Joe" and "Forward | Not Back") at key moments. Just so we're clear, these aren't signs that attendees brought themselves; indeed, signs of any kind were prohibited from the arena, as were "whole fruit," "voice enhancement devices, such as bullhorns," and "baseballs, softballs, etc."
Over the air
Media were everywhere in the arena, from Talk Show Row at the entrance to studio suites in the arena itself. Mostly they were focused on their work, seemingly ignoring much of the hub-bub taking place behind them. But during Bill Clinton's and Barack Obama's speeches, I noticed the journalists actually turning around to see the speakers in person. There was also a media presence at the "Epicentre" in Charlotte and this is where shows like Morning Joe on MSNBC were filmed. The media workspace in the basement of the convention hall was extremely quiet, with everyone from C-SPAN to Buzzfeed to The Huffington Post having a dedicated workspace. The key moments covered were of course the speeches, but the "God" language debacle received instantaneous opining and analysis, as this was likely the only unscripted event of the convention.
There is much to be said about the messaging, oration, strategy and media coverage of both conventions, but for now, this is my view from "inside the bubble."