WASHINGTON — When historians sift through the strangest Internet moments of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be images of professional wrestlers taunting each other in empty arenas, self-recorded videos of celebrities warning people to stay home — and Joe Biden’s “Illinois Virtual Town Hall.”
Filmed from his home state of Delaware, Biden appears in front of American and Illinois flags, pacing as he usually does before a room full of people. Except in this video, he is alone and holding a black cellphone to his mouth. Some scenes are garbled; in others he walks off screen.
“Am I on camera?” he asks once before later concluding, “I am sorry this has been such a disjointed effort here because of the connections.”
The coronavirus outbreak has brought the 2020 presidential campaign nearly to a halt, forcing Biden, 77, and the other two septuagenarians left in the race — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 78, and President Trump, 73 — to go digital as they avoid the large gatherings that public health officials warn will spread the virus and could endanger the candidates’ own health.
Town hall forums, rallies and fund-raisers have shifted to online platforms. Campaign war room strategy sessions are taking place through video conferencing, and field workers are conducting their training and voter outreach efforts via texts and calls, Zoom meetings, and Google Hangouts. Political analysts and campaign strategists said they have had to rethink every aspect of their trade, improvising and experimenting in real time.
Fernand Amandi, a Democratic political consultant in Miami, calls it uncharted territory, a measure of what a throwback traditional campaigning remains.
“Campaigns are still an analog construct in a digital world,” Amandi said. “They take time to cultivate. It’s not like you add drops of water, and it grows overnight.”
The late spring months before a general presidential election are usually when the party’s presumptive nominees step out of public view before the summer conventions as their teams regroup, hire new staffers, and train armies of volunteers for the general election.
Instead, in this new era of social distancing, campaign aides have had to put plans on hold or alter the raft of things best accomplished through in-person meetings. With more people at home, volunteers say they have had more time to make calls, and voters have been more likely to take them. But conversations over the phone or through video chat have made it harder to persuade donors, both large and small, to open their wallets, particularly with the economy reeling and unemployment skyrocketing.
Meanwhile, many people have tuned out from the political knife fight altogether as they deal with their own disrupted lives.
This period “is an interesting test [of campaign strategies] because more people will be home, so they will see your message, but they are not likely interested in your message right now,” said David McIntosh, president of the free-market advocacy group Club for Growth, which has run ads in support of Trump but is planning to suspend its next round of advertisements for now. “The country has taken a pause from politics.”
Trump’s campaign has delayed a massive advertisement launch against Biden. And the inability to hold the raucous rallies the president loves is probably hurting his psyche as much as his campaign, strategists said.
The outbreak also has stunted Sanders’ attempts to make up ground against Biden, the Democratic front-runner. The Vermont senator had relied on sprawling ground game operations and energetic concerts to bring together thousands of supporters he hoped would vote for him.
Now, that’s all being done virtually. Sanders’ latest live-streamed rally might be one for the pandemic archives, too: a Monday event posted to YouTube featuring campaign aides, surrogates, and music performances, including one by Neil Young ― alone with his dog ― as he strums “Heart of Gold” on his guitar in front of a fireplace. It has been viewed more than 178,000 times.
“I don’t have to tell anybody that we are living in a very unprecedented and strange moment in the history of our country,” said Sanders, who has also live-streamed a “fireside chat” from his home in Burlington and an hour-long policy discussion with supporters and surrogates ahead of Sunday’s presidential debate. He planned to hold a virtual roundtable on Friday to discuss the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the nation’s health care system and economy.
Though several of his “tele-town halls” and “get out the vote” calls have been beset with technical glitches, Biden so far seemed to be hit the least by the shift to digital.
With a trio of wins in this week’s primaries, the former vice president has nearly doubled his delegate count over Sanders. But 23 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands still have yet to hold their primaries or caucuses. Many of those might be delayed. Seven states so far, including Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio, have moved their elections to later this summer as state officials grapple with how to handle voting amid the outbreak.
Biden’s challenge will be breaking into the news cycle to draw contrasts with Trump on their leadership and experience in a time of crisis. And Biden probably will be working to recruit new digital strategists and organizers to his campaign. “Because he was late to launch his presidential bid, a lot of the people who had been top brass in prior campaigns were already taken up,” said Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, an associate professor at Fordham University who studies digital campaigns.
Biden’s digital infrastructure was tested when, just days before last Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona, Illinois, and Florida, organizers in those states scrambled to mobilize hundreds of volunteers to make calls and host video conferences in lieu of door-to-door canvassing and live get-out-the-vote events.
“It was a quick turnaround but we had a lot of those [digital] structures ready,” said Catherine Vegis, who oversees hundreds of volunteers as Biden’s organizing director in Illinois. Biden went on to win all but one of the state’s 102 counties.
“The big takeaway for me is that you can use multiple platforms to execute the conversation,” she said. “But it is more about the conversation rather than the platform.”
Still, research shows that nothing works works better than personal interactions in those final days before elections. And there is no telling how campaigns, all the way down ballot, could be hampered should the virus keep volunteers from hitting the streets and knocking on doors.
“Campaigns are won on the ground; you can take that to the bank,” said Jody Baumgartner, professor of political science at East Carolina University. “That is the under-appreciated fact of Obama’s victory. It was not won on YouTube or social media. It was won on the ground.”
Campaigns have increasingly been going digital since the mass adoption of the Internet in the 1990s.
Republican strategist Karl Rove led the way in George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign in collecting voter e-mail addresses and zip codes, launching a database project that allowed his team to target new voters. But Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign typically is credited for the most innovative use of digital technology, combining the power of social media and old-school organizing methods to fuel his victory. Now every campaign has some digital component incorporated into every level, whether it’s reaching out to volunteers, keeping in touch with supporters, or raising money.
Trump, who paved his way to the White House in 2016 in part by dominating the digital ad space, has yet to host any online reelection events. But he has a much larger platform now at the helm of the coronavirus response, something that could work for or against him, depending on his performance and the progress of the pandemic.
His campaign aides say they have been thinking about digital infrastructure from day one. Under Republican digital strategist and campaign manager Brad Parscale, the Trump team has been following an approach similar to Rove’s, collecting information on people who register for his rallies to identify new voters and urge them to volunteer, donate, and attend events.
With social distancing now in place, Trump’s campaign has been boosting its online voter registration efforts, training volunteers through online platforms, and ramping up calls, texts, and e-mails to supporters.
“What energizes the president, what succeeds in this digital period of the campaign has yet to be discovered,” said Michael Caputo, a former adviser to Trump. “And I trust Brad Parscale to discover it 100 percent.”