Off the trail
As COVID-19 upends the traditional campaign season, candidates go off the trail in a reality-show era fit for a pandemic
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If working from a makeshift office in a corner of a bedroom proved taxing for millions of Americans sheltering at home during the coronavirus shutdown, imagine running for president from a basement.
That’s been Joe Biden’s subterranean plight for some eight weeks.
At a campaign event in South Carolina on Feb. 26, dozens of reporters crammed onto aluminum bleachers as Democratic presidential candidates shook hands and greeted local Baptists clustered around folding tables in a church gym.
Two weeks later, President Donald Trump was urging Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and state governors were issuing stay-at-home orders. Biden had nearly cinched the Democratic presidential nomination, but along with millions of other Americans, he soon retreated home.
Trump’s surrogates kept the campaign fires going: Every night at 8:00 p.m., staffers and advisers crank up the campaign’s YouTube channel and produce television-quality livestream programs, complete with slick campaign commercials.
Biden’s digital debut was less slick: On a buggy livestream with garbled audio from his basement in mid-March, the former vice president held his first virtual town hall, and at one point asked an aide: “Am I on camera?”
It’s a surreal moment in presidential politics, as Donald Trump Jr. livestreams from a den while quarantining with girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle—a Trump campaign adviser and the ex-wife of California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Back in Delaware, Jill Biden campaigned for her husband with an “LGBTQ+ Social Hour” via Zoom from the couple’s basement headquarters. One of her guests was Danica Roem, the first transgender delegate elected to Virginia’s state legislature. Pop legend Cyndi Lauper beamed in from her leopard-skin couch in New York City to sing her 1980s hit “True Colors.”
Welcome to the era of the quarantined campaign.
Less than six months before Election Day, Biden narrowly leads Trump in a handful of presidential polls, but he widely lags in the digital race that may prove critical for reaching voters sequestered from political gatherings and cut off from the usual rhythms of a traditional campaign ahead of November.
Beyond the quality of online videos, social media stats paint a vivid picture: Trump has 15 times as many followers on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as Biden. (Biden clocks in at 8.4 million followers. Trump’s tally: 123 million.)
Even David Axelrod, the campaign strategist for President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign, sounded concerned about the former vice president.
An early lead isn’t enough, Axelrod wrote in a May 4 op-ed. Biden should supercharge his digital strategy if he wants to prevail in a most unusual campaign against a media-savvy opponent: “Online speeches from his basement won’t cut it.”
LEST BIDEN’S QUARANTINE headquarters sound too rustic, it might help to set the scene: The former vice president’s basement is a nicely finished recreational room in his 6,800-square-foot, Colonial-style home in Wilmington, Del.
After Biden retreated there in mid-March, his first stab at a virtual town hall was digitally plagued with glitches, but staffers quickly installed a higher-tech setup in front of a bookcase in the basement. (To limit Biden’s exposure to outsiders during the pandemic, technicians operate the basement cameras remotely from Sioux City, Iowa.)
Biden continued to livestream video calls with supporters, politicians, and vice presidential hopefuls, but his next big digital event came eight weeks after the glitchy town hall. It was an online rally focused on Tampa voters. It was also a big moment: What would a virtual presidential campaign rally look like?
Digitally tortured again.
An early lead isn’t enough, David Axelrod wrote in a May 4 op-ed. Biden should supercharge his digital strategy if he wants to prevail in a most unusual campaign against a media-savvy opponent: “Online speeches from his basement won’t cut it.”
Live feeds of Florida politicians bogged down, with the Tampa Bay Times noting, “Their feeds were visibly delayed as if they were transmitting from Afghanistan, not Tampa Bay.”
As local Democratic leaders appeared from their homes, the digital team sometimes ran the wrong names with the wrong faces. Between guests, a disc jockey played the kind of music popular at campaign rallies, but viewers were left to watch him bop his head to the beat for nearly four minutes.
Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., appeared on-screen, but apparently didn’t realize it: He glanced around and dabbed his chin with a handkerchief while waiting to go live. Not long into Crist’s speech, the screen went black for six minutes.
Finally, nearly 40 minutes into the event, Biden appeared outside his home in Delaware. He lingered for a moment before walking inside, and asked an aide: “Did they introduce me yet? Am I on?” He thanked the Floridians who had spoken during the virtual rally, including Florida congresswoman Kathy Castor, whom Biden seemed to refer to as “Castro.”
Perhaps online rallies don’t matter much to voters at this point, but despite Biden’s early lead in polls and his substantial fundraising haul in April, the beleaguered virtual event wasn’t a great sign for a campaign that may not be able to return to mass gatherings before the election.
Indeed, The New York Times ran op-ed pieces in May that could qualify as action memos to the Biden campaign.
Lis Smith, a former campaign adviser to Obama, penned a May 7 column: “How Joe Biden Can Defeat Trump From His Basement.” The strategist suggested the specific newspapers and local television stations the campaign should court and suggested subjects for mini-documentaries to produce for a potentially virtual Democratic National Convention.
Three days earlier, a column from David Axelrod urged the Biden campaign to pick up the tempo on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms: “In many ways they are the campaign, not an important part of it.”
That’s a memo the Trump campaign already follows. The president maintains a massive Twitter following, though his use of the platform is infamously tempestuous. (In May, he suddenly called for an investigation into MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, apparently related to the 2001 death of a staffer in Scarborough’s congressional office. The president called the anchor “a total nut job.”)
But the Trump campaign also quickly constructed a digital plan fit for a quarantine when mass gatherings screeched to a halt in March. Nightly livestreamed shows with Trump surrogates and staffers feature coalitions like “Catholics for Trump,” “Black Voices for Trump,” and “Latinos for Trump.” It’s a glimpse into groups of voters the campaign is still targeting for outreach, despite the pandemic.
The livestreams—including Donald Trump Jr.’s intentionally provocative talk show Triggered—open with television-quality graphics and feature well-produced campaign commercials. They often begin with a message: “Enjoy the Show.”
PEEL BACK THE SHOW’S CURTAIN and you’ll find plenty of other campaign events unfolding behind the scenes. Both presidential campaigns have pivoted to online volunteer training and virtual gatherings with supporters.
The Zoom events try to evoke a sense of community (one Biden event organized by a volunteer invited participants to display their cats during a Zoom call), but it’s a tough match for the camaraderie of sitting in a room with other volunteers, eating free pizza and making calls for a candidate.
At one virtual phone bank organized by a Biden volunteer in Georgia, a handful of participants connected via Zoom and appeared on-screen from their homes. But they muted their speakers as they called Biden supporters from a list supplied by the campaign. They essentially watched each other make calls.
Axelrod urged the Biden campaign to pick up the tempo on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms: “In many ways they are the campaign, not an important part of it.”
A video call for Catholic supporters of Trump featured Lou Holtz, a former college football coach and sports broadcaster. Holtz said he appreciated Trump’s support for pro-life positions and religious liberty. After he recited a harmless but slightly salty poem about politics, Mike Mears, a Republican National Committee staffer, said he had forgotten to mention the call was off-limits to the media. I hung up.
I didn’t last long on another gathering for Trump supporters after following a Zoom link to a prayer call. After a bit of chit-chat among the participants, the convener of the call announced, “If you are a member of the media you have to HANG UP.” I hung up.
I had more success on a Friday evening ice cream social for Biden supporters from Virginia. The description invited participants to grab their favorite bowl of ice cream and hop online to discuss how COVID-19 is affecting small businesses.
As far as I could tell, no one was eating ice cream (and the organizer said she doesn’t like to eat sweets before dinner), but the dessertless social did turn to a serious discussion of how participants were coping with the coronavirus shutdown.
A manager of a nursing home said he is struggling to obtain enough personal protective equipment for his staffers caring for vulnerable populations during the outbreak that has devastated some nursing facilities.
The other participants brainstormed ideas, and one said she could deliver 100 surgical masks by the weekend. There was surprisingly little discussion of politics or of Biden—a reminder that personal realities are looming larger than political ones for many Americans at the moment.
Later that evening, I hopped on a Netflix Party with a handful of college students from Georgia. They were Biden supporters watching Becoming, a documentary about former first lady Michelle Obama. A chat box ran beside the movie as we watched.
As the documentary unfolded, I was taken back to the massive enthusiasm that surrounded the Obamas during the 2008 campaign. I wondered: Could Biden generate this kind of enthusiasm as a candidate, apart from running against Trump? By the end of the movie, the handful of participants in the chat box had bantered about their admiration for the Obamas. None had mentioned Biden.
But the next afternoon, at least 80 participants joined a Zoom call to learn about volunteering for the Biden campaign in Mecklenburg County, N.C. There were no warnings for media to flee, so I observed as Biden field organizer Robert Gold-Dworkin walked the participants through how to use the Biden website to make phone calls for the candidate from their homes.
He invited questions, and a few began to appear in a chat box. Most were logistical, but a couple were blunt: “How best to handle the sexual assault allegation?” The query referred to Tara Reade, a former staffer to Biden’s Senate office, who alleged Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. Biden has denied the allegation.
Gold-Dworkin briefly addressed the question, saying women have a right to tell their stories, but he said journalists had investigated Reade’s claims and Biden had said the story wasn’t true.
It’s unclear if that answer will satisfy political observers on either side.
Meanwhile, another question popped up that has dogged Biden’s campaign since he became the presumptive Democratic nominee: “When are we going to hear more from VP Biden?”
THAT’S A QUESTION that supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked as Biden edged closer to becoming the presumptive nominee in March. On Twitter, some popularized the hashtag “#WhereIsJoe.”
Biden has found himself on the defensive about how he plans to engage with voters more directly, even in a quarantine. Is the candidate lying low and hoping Trump defeats himself?
From his basement, Biden has appeared on morning news shows and internet versions of late-night talk shows, but being in isolation has allowed him to avoid the kinds of interactions he might face with a larger group of reporters on the campaign trail.
An April 25 New York Times story assured readers Biden was granting some interviews and making important calls, but then noted, “The Biden campaign declined to make him available for an interview.”
Meanwhile, Trump has expressed an eagerness to get back on the campaign trail, though the mass rallies that fueled his victory in 2016 seem like a long shot for the foreseeable future.
Even with a substantial digital advantage over Biden during a pivotal moment for online engagement, it’s difficult to replace face-to-face engagement during a political campaign. “For me, it’s a tremendous way of getting the word out,” Trump said during a coronavirus task force meeting. “We win where we have rallies.”
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