Are conventions even real? In the best of times, they are just coronations or pageants, filled with balloons and confetti and people who have already made up their mind. But in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, when you have to peel back all the props, all that matters is message.

Tonight and tomorrow, millions will stream online — some looking for a hat-tip to their particular cause while others, perhaps more urgently, will strain their ears to hear the new, big theme they hope will carry them to victory in just over 70 days.

Spoiler alert: it needs to be more than “I’m not Trump.”

Four years ago, both parties went into their conventions fearful of insurrection. Hillary Clinton cinched her party’s nomination through, what some nefariously released emails showed to be, heavy arm-twisting. Meanwhile, Donald Trump hired Paul Manafort to be his campaign chief precisely because he was known to make sure conventions ran smoothly. Ken Cuccinelli’s floor fight ended up amounting to nothing, and where is Ken these days?

Tonight and tomorrow matter not for pomp and circumstance, nor for loyalty enforcement, but because they offer Joe Biden and his new running mate Kamala Harris their first chance to make their case for how they would improve the lives of people in a shaken nation.

Based on the lineup of speakers, Democrats are trying to project the image of a broad and diverse unity. From Bernie Sanders to John Kasich, a Republican, the lineup will set the stage. In Reagan’s time, it was the Republicans who were, as Lee Atwater put it then, a “big tent.” Kasich, who as Ohio governor in 2016 declined to attend the Republicans’ Cleveland convention, is likely to deliver a blistering attack on what the GOP has become.

Kumbaya is an old, outdated convention tune. To shift attention away from how little the gathering aspect of the event matters this time, a sharper, more empowering theme is required. There are three components of this: we get it, we have a plan and — with you — we win.

If the urgency was somehow lost on any of the planners of the theoretically Milwaukee-based events, CNN released a poll last night indicating that Trump has eaten into Biden’s once double-digit lead and the two are now closer than they’ve ever been in a head-to-head match up. More troubling still for Democrats, the RealClearPolitics battleground map now shows Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all to be toss-ups.

The Democratic strategists who prevailed over the last several years are likely doubling down on their belief that this is the moment to really indict Trump and send a fire and brimstone message about what will happen not only to him, but to his collaborators, too.

Unsuccessful presidential candidate Eric Swalwell recently floated the idea of a Presidential Crimes Commission, which is heady stuff for those who have been frustrated with every previous attempt to slay Trump in office. But politically, it is malpractice. It sends the message to Trump supporters that, on the heels of a Biden win, we’re coming for you. That is the wrong kind of motivating for a side that’s serious about winning.

Thankfully, Swalwell won’t be speaking, but his fellow, former California prosecutor Harris is on the ticket, so perhaps he doesn’t have to.

The clearer minds, those who chose Milwaukee as the theoretical setting, know that Democrats failed to sway many of their own in 2016, notably in Wisconsin. By producing a candidate who could not connect with working families, they sent the message that media elites and the Morning Joe matter more than the Average Joe. For them, and arguably the country as a whole, the result was disastrous.

Outrage, vengeance, imperiled democracy, sneaky Russians and stupid Trump supporters are all topics the Democrats would be wise to avoid over the next couple of days. We’ve heard all these things over the last three years, and despite that, the candidates are — if CNN is to be believed — neck and neck.

In contrast, it would be refreshing to hear a combination of a little humility and a credible plan for moving America forward, beyond corona-stagnation to a new normal that creates jobs for the better angels of our nature. Perhaps that’s too much to hope for in a time of patent negativity. But as I listen for something different, I would be pleased to be surprised.