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Joe Biden's DNC moment: 5 things to watch on the final night

Can the Democratic nominee break through? What's his policy plan? Will the virtual convention give him a poll boost? And more.
It's Joe Biden's big night at the DNC as he delivers the closing speech and accepts his party's nomination. Also, speaking are Sens. Cory Booker and Tammy Duckworth and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
It's Joe Biden's big night at the DNC as he delivers the closing speech and accepts his party's nomination. Also, speaking are Sens. Cory Booker and Tammy Duckworth and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Elise Wrabetz / NBC News

WASHINGTON — The all-virtual Democratic National Convention concludes Thursday with a speech from the party's nominee himself, Joe Biden, along with appearances by 2020 also-rans Andrew Yang, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg.

The final night of political conventions are typically the most watched, and Democrats have had a hard time breaking through to voters with the coronavirus crisis and President Donald Trump dominating the news most days, so Biden's speech is one of his best opportunities in months to get his message out.

Biden is not known as a particularly powerful orator, and Trump's campaign has been arguing in ads and statements that Biden is essentially suffering from mental decline, so they've set a fairly low bar for the former VP to clear.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Biden's big moment

At the age of 30 in 1972, Biden was one of the youngest people ever elected to the Senate. It didn't take long for him to start considering the possibility of a promotion to the presidency and he explored or actually ran in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2004, 2008 and 2016 before, nearly half a century after first entering the Senate, he finally won his party's nomination in 2020.

So Biden has for years been dreaming about the moment he would stand in front of thousands of cheering Democrats to say, "I accept your nomination for president" — only he will do so virtually. Because of the pandemic, Biden will accept the nomination from an almost entirely empty venue.

But it will nonetheless be the culmination of the convention and a career for Biden, who will speak on the theme of "America’s promise," organizers say.

2. Did it move the polls?

History has shown conventions can and regularly do have a small but real impact on voters' views of the race, but there's no precedent for this kind of virtual convention. Will Biden get a bump?

TV ratings for Democrats' unconventional convention have been down from 2016 so far, though organizers say digital viewership has more than made up for the loss. If Democrats could have Americans watch only one speech from all eight hours of programming this week, it'd be Biden's tonight.

Republicans' convention is next week, though many details remain hazy, and Trump has predicted that more people will watch his convention. But how much either convention changes' voters mind in such a polarized era remains to be seen.

3. What's the 'Biden agenda'?

The convention so far has told us a lot about who Joe Biden the person is — his character, his family, his personal touch — but a lot less about who Joe Biden the president would be.

Biden's website details a litany of progressive policies, but he's not exactly running on them. So far, at least, the specifics of his agenda haven't been front-and-center in his speeches or ads or at the convention.

On one hand, progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been telling their supporters they can move Biden their way. On the other hand, some moderates have been saying the opposite, assuring anti-Trump-but-not-yet-pro-Biden voters that he won't "turn sharp left and leave them behind," as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, said during his speech to the convention Monday.

Then there's the how. Biden has insisted he will pass his agenda by winning over Republican lawmakers through his long-standing bipartisan relationships, but even his allies acknowledge the Senate has become far more polarized since he left, and the former vice president hasn't detailed, for instance, how he would overcome a likely GOP filibuster if Republicans retain control.

Will his speech Thursday offer more guidance? Or will it focus on the more familiar fare of the threat posed by Trump and on Biden's more vague promise to "restore the soul" of America?

4. Booker, Buttigieg

Sometimes you win by running for president even if you lose.

That's certainly the case for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who was virtually unknown nationally before his presidential campaign, as well as for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who grew his already significant profile by campaigning as a happy warrior even as little went his way during the 2020 campaign.

Both will speak Thursday night as representatives of a younger generation of Democratic leaders, unlike Biden, who would be the oldest president at 78 if elected. Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate, but the selection of Buttigieg and Booker to speak on the same night he is is a sign of the kind of Democrat he hopes will rise in his wake.

And while one is a gay white veteran from the Midwest and the other is a Black former college football player from the East Coast, they share an elite education — both were Rhodes Scholars and, between them, have degrees from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Oxford.

5. Andrew Yang

In an election full of characters and surprises, no one was a more surprising character than Andrew Yang, a little-known tech entrepreneur who adroitly diagnosed a growing anxiety with economic automation and offered a simple solution — free money — that made him an unlikely star.

Proposals for a universal basic income have actually been bubbling up in some tech and policy circles for years — the former head of one of the nation’s largest unions wrote a book about it in 2016 — but Yang helped bring the idea to the mainstream.

He was dismissed at first, but one of the first things the U.S. government did to respond to the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis was issue a check for $1,200 to most Americans.