Hillary Clinton joined Joe Biden for a town hall on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting women across the country, and offered her endorsement.
WASHINGTON – Two days after President Donald Trump visited a mask factory in Arizona last week, Joe Biden talked to voters from another crucial election state, Florida.
Except, unlike Trump, the former vice president wasn’t there physically.
Like all his campaign events since mid-March – endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, virtual town halls, fundraisers and more – Biden was at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, as he follows social distancing guidelines like most Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For his two Florida calls, he spoke from a back patio, a departure from his basement, which has been transformed into a studio for the presumptive Democratic nominee to conduct most of his campaign Zoom meetings and interviews.
“I’m going to need you if we win,” Biden told a group of 50 black leaders gathered in Jacksonville. Later that evening, after a live DJ session, several introductions and even more glitches (at one point, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Florida, disappeared from the screen but could still be heard), Biden addressed supporters in Tampa, Florida.
“Have you introduced me? Am I on?” he said, still wearing his sunglasses. He then took them off, settled in and thanked his loyalists. “There’s nothing we cannot accomplish if we work together, and come this November, we’re going to prove it.”
The arrangement has worked just fine so far even with some technical warts. A Monmouth University poll this week found Biden leading Trump in a head-to-head matchup 50%-41%. But the campaign-via-basement strategy could be tested if Trump continues to take presidential visits outside Washington amid the COVID-19 crisis.
More: Trump lands in Arizona for most extensive trip since start of coronavirus pandemic
Some Democrats are getting antsy for Biden to move beyond the standard online speeches and policy announcements that have defined his campaign in the coronavirus era.
With Trump now starting to travel and the election less than six months away, the Biden campaign faces an added risk: the competing images of a president in action, conversing with voters as he pushes to reopen the economy, and a challenger talking into a camera in an empty room.
Former top Barack Obama campaign advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe, in a recent New York Times op-ed, called on the Biden campaign to “up the tempo” of his campaign. They argued a basement campaign can work, but it must fully utilize his army of surrogates and – perhaps most important – move quickly to ramp up the campaign’s digital presence, which has lagged.
“His authentic sense of empathy is a quality uniquely suited to this agonizing moment,” Axelrod and Plouffe wrote of Biden. But they said he’s now “mired in his basement, speaking to us remotely, like an astronaut beaming back to earth from the International Space Station.”
They continued: “Mr. Biden finds himself on the outside looking in” on the only story that matters, the coronavirus pandemic. “Online speeches from his basement won’t cut it.”
Inside the day of a presidential candidate at home
The 77-year-old Biden begins his daily routine around 8 a.m. riding a Peloton exercise bike. He then gulps down a protein shake and takes part in two separate teleconference calls – one with a team of health experts for the latest update on the coronavirus and another with economic advisers.
Meetings and phone calls take place in various rooms throughout Biden’s home. What the public sees usually is the basement, the venue for most of his media interviews and campaign events. In a push for more face-to-face time with everyday voters and front-line coronavirus workers, Biden recently held a “virtual ropeline” for supporters and a talk with a Wisconsin nurse and her family. The campaign declined to say how many staffers are present in Biden’s home to help carry out the operations.
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Even as some states start reopening businesses, the Biden camp has given no indication publicly of plans to get back on the campaign trail. Delaware is among several states under a stay-at-home order. It’s set to expire May 15.
“The health and safety of our supporters, staff and the American people is our top priority, and our decision making on how to campaign will be guided by public health experts with that in mind,” Biden national campaign secretary T.J. Ducklo said in a statement. “Vice President Biden continues to connect with voters across the country everyday through a range of virtual platforms and looks forward to traveling the country again as soon as we can safely do so.”
Providing direction, according to the campaign, is a six-member panel of health experts assembled March 11 to provide “science-based, expert advice” on steps to minimize risks for Biden, his campaign staff and supporters. The groups includes Vivek Murthy, who was surgeon general in the Obama administration, along with other doctors who have backgrounds in epidimeology and microbiology.
For Biden, the absence of campaign stops has taken away a perceived strength: retail politicking. Biden, whose first run for office was a city council win in 1970, often seems more comfortable giving a hug and sharing a personal moment with a voter than giving a policy speech.
Still, Democrats and Republicans alike say Biden benefited from being confined the past two months. As Trump held meandering two-hour-long daily press briefings on the coronavirus crisis, offering mixed messages and lines that backfired – suggesting disinfectant as a cure for the virus tops them all – Biden was able to put forward a consistent message: listen to the doctors and other health experts.
The setting has allowed him to avoid major gaffes, save vital campaign money and energy for the race ahead, and display a united Democratic front to take on Trump through the steady stream of endorsements.
“So far, I don’t think it’s hurt him at all. If anything, it’s hurt Trump,” Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist, said of the lopsided media attention. Usually, it would be a major advantage for an incumbent during a crisis, but, Trippi said, “in a lot of ways, Trump is competing against himself.”
Trippi said Biden can make his case to voters sufficiently from home moving forward as well because the race is foremost about the contrasting personalities of the candidates.
“I think this comes down to do you want the chaos and division of Trump, or do you want that empathetic leader that Biden is seen as?” Trippi said. “I don’t know that it’s going to matter what form those messages get delivered.”
He noted that despite the bigger crowds of Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic primary, Biden emerged as the presumptive nominee anyway. Biden won some states without visiting them or opening campaign offices or airing any television ads in them.
“It’s definitely limiting,” Trippi said of Biden’s home-based campaign. “But given what we saw all this year with Joe Biden and his opponents, and given who Trump is, I’m not sure it’s a big advantage for (Trump) to be holding rallies and running around the country in the midst of this.”
Better for Biden to stay at home? Trump and allies say so
Unlike Biden, Trump is in position to conduct trips on Air Force One as official White House business. But there’s a risk for the president. Critics knocked Trump for the Arizona visit, pointing to the hundreds of staffers, Secret Service personnel, military members and others who typically fly in for such events, this time during a global pandemic.
More: ‘Nothing can cover up how he failed’: Biden rips Trump ahead of Phoenix visit
Trump attracted more criticismfrom Democrats for choosing to not wear a mask while touring a factory that makes them. His traveling could bring future scrutiny if states reopen their economies too soon and it leads to more coronavirus cases.
In a phone interview with Fox News on Friday, Trump needled Biden about campaigning from home, saying he would help him gain access to rapid COVID-19 tests if he were asked. “I would love to see him get out of the basement so he can speak,” Trump said, adding, “Every time he talks it’s like a good thing.
“They don’t want him to come out,” the president said. “I’ll give them the test immediately. We would have it to them today.”
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Although the Trump campaign has not scheduled any campaign stops or rallies, the president intends to take more White House trips like the one to Phoenix to tout his coronavirus response. In that same vein, Vice President Mike Pence visited Iowa for a meeting Friday with faith leaders on reopening houses of worship and a meeting with agriculture and supply chain leaders.
“We’re going to start to move around,” Trump said at a recent news briefing. He said he was tired of being cooped up in the White House and wants to resume reelection campaign rallies as soon as possible.
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But Brad Todd, a Republican strategist and founding partner of the media consultant firm OnMessage Inc., said the Biden campaign should keep the status quo as long as possible.
“If I was running the Biden campaign, I would unplug his broadband and keep him in the basement,” Todd said. “I think the memory of Joe Biden as vice president is more compelling to voters than the present of Joe Biden the candidate.
“So I think the basement is a great place to be. The only problem is they continually broadcast out of there.”
Todd, whose firm worked for the campaign of Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, among others, said Biden is better off if the election becomes a “single referendum on Trump” where Biden doesn’t factor in at all when people cast their votes in November. He said Democrats chose Biden because he had the “least risk,” not his individual appeal.
He believes the Biden campaign will eventually cave, however.
“I predict the Biden campaign will take the bait, and they’ll put him out,” Todd said. “I think it will be a mistake.”
As for Trump, Todd said he would be surprised if the president starts holding major campaign rallies anytime soon, which would put him at a disadvantage. Besides activating Trump’s loyal base and dominating media coverage, the rallies help the Trump campaign collect data on their voters.
“If you’re looking at who this helps, who this hurts, the Trump campaign losing the rallies is a major tool out of the toolkit,” Todd said.
Former President Barack Obama, who has remained neutral for the entirety of the 2020 Democratic primary, endorsed his former vice president, Joe Biden.
Former Obama advisers send signals to Biden campaign
In the Times op-ed, Axelrod and Plouffe said that the Biden campaign must rethink every aspect of the campaign amid the coronavirus pandemic and that adjusting to the new political realities is “imperative.” They said the campaign can’t afford to assume Trump’s election fate will be tied to his handling of the crisis and the sinking economy.
They gave several suggestions: campaign like an insurgent eager to put Trump on his heels, not an incumbent playing defense; respond rapidly to the negative attacks of Trump and his surrogates; enhance the campaign’s digital footprint; enlist the liberal-leaning creative class to improve the quality of the content; prepare for a virtual convention; and organize digitally such as urging supporters to share content and enlisting their friends.
The Biden campaign followed through on one tip from Democratic digital experts Friday by turning to the left-wing social media network, NowThis News, for remarks to address the nation’s historic rise in unemployment.
More: Biden fares almost as well with young voters as Sanders in matchup vs. Trump, poll finds
With Trump holding a 15-to-1 advantage on Biden with social media followers (79.5 million Twitter followers to 5.3 million for Biden), Democrats have urged Biden to lean on the social networks of allies who have a greater online presence. NowThis News has 16 million Facebook followers, compared with 1.8 million for Biden.
The Biden campaign also doubled its 20-member digital team, The Washington Post reported Friday, as part of a major staff expansion in all major departments.
Lis Smith, former campaign adviser for Buttigieg and Obama, wrote in a separate Times op-ed that if Biden “plays his cards right,” he can put a death to the traditional campaign and create a new standard for talking to the media. She said he must become “digitally omnipresent,” adding that Biden’s “palpable empathy” is a quality that translates well to the screen.
“The 77-year-old Mr. Biden, whom the president derisively calls ‘Sleepy Joe, can become the hottest bad boy and disrupter in the media game,” she wrote.
But if the Biden campaign remains in the basement long-term, it must work out the kinks before it can rewrite the rules on how to win a race for president.
More glitch-filled virtual town halls like the one in Florida last week will only fuel his opponents.
“If Joe Biden cannot run a livestream event,” the Republican National Committee said in a news release Friday, “why should we think he could run a country?”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
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