WASHINGTON – During a virtual fund-raiser in late March, as the coronavirus pandemic forced presidential campaigns to contend with a strange new digital-only existence, a donor worried about Joe Biden’s prospects.
“What I’m concerned about is that we see Donald Trump every day with this crisis giving his press report,” the caller said. “How do we get more of you and less of him on our airwaves?”
Speaking from his home in Wilmington, Del., the former vice president pointed to his new high-speed Internet connection and the basement recreation room transformed into a television studio. Beginning the next day, Biden assured the donors, he was “going to speak to these issues.”
And so he has, although how many people are paying attention is still a major question for the presumptive Democratic nominee.
A politician known for backslapping and handshaking retail politics has been learning to connect with voters — and just as importantly raise money — in virtual spaces at a time when businesses are shuttering, the ranks of the unemployed are surging, and families are bracing for an uncertain future.
“Fortunes are being lost by the minute. How do you call someone up that just laid off all their staff or stopped construction mid-project and ask for money?” said Florida plaintiff attorney and top Biden fund-raiser John Morgan. “It’s like going to a funeral and asking, ‘Would you like to dance?’”
So far, campaign aides assure, the money is still coming in as Biden tries to close a major gap with President Trump by holding virtual events like Thursday night’s “A Fabulous Evening with Vice President Joe Biden.” The Zoom fund-raiser, which included actor Kristin Chenoweth, singer Melissa Etheridge and tennis legend Billie Jean King, drew 670 people and brought in more than $1.1 million dollars, according to one of the hosts.
March marked Biden’s best fund-raising month, as he pulled in $46.7 million, more than Trump’s $13.6 million. Biden has seen two recent major bumps, according to his campaign. One came as Democrats coalesced around him after his South Carolina victory and he racked up a slew of victories on Super Tuesday; another when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders conceded the primary and endorsed him, with former president Obama and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren following after.
“The pandemic is front and center, and there are people who are suffering from this, psychologically, physically,” said Sarah Morgenthau, a Biden fund-raiser and member of his national finance committee. “But at the same time, because people are spending more time at home and seeing how things are playing out, there is a lot of interest and a lot of excitement on the financial side.”
Still, Trump had much more cash on hand at the end of March: $98.5 million compared with Biden’s $26.4 million. The gap widens when you add in the money of their respective national parties. Trump and the Republican National Committee ended the first three months of the year with a total of more than $175 million cash on hand, accounting for debts owed, compared to the estimated net of $57 million combined for Biden and the Democratic National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The coronavirus outbreak presents major challenges for Biden. He raised most of his March funds during the primaries in the first two weeks, with donations dropping off as he went virtual.
Typically in the crucial spring months ahead of a presidential election, Steve Shurtleff, speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and a Biden surrogate, would be making phone calls to voters, raising money, and recruiting House candidates. Instead, this spring he’s spent most of his time working with the governor and state agencies to help implement stay-at-home orders and deploy the National Guard.
Some state and congressional candidates have fired off e-mails to update supporters about what they are doing to help with the crisis and what people should be doing, he said, such as staying home and drinking plenty of fluids. “But no one is straight up asking for money,” Shurtleff said. Because of that, he added, “Fund-raising is going to be a big issue for both Democrats and Republicans all the way down the ballot.”
Money isn’t everything in a political campaign.
Trump spent far less than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. And Biden clinched the Democratic nomination after he started the year with less cash on hand than most Democratic rivals and was sorely outspent throughout the primary.
Republicans could use their money advantage to ramp up their attacks on Biden over the Ukraine and China business dealings of his son, Hunter, and a new allegation by a former staffer, Tara Reade, who said Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. Biden denies the allegation.
But Trump is facing extensive criticism as well over his own business dealings and those of his children during his time in office, as well as accusations of sexual assault and misconduct by more than a dozen women. And political strategists said there is only so much that advertising can do to change voters’ perceptions about two candidates who have spent so much of their lives in the public eye.
“This election will be a relatively strange one,” said Republican strategist Dennis Darnoi of Michigan. “It really is going to be a referendum on Donald Trump, and there aren’t that many people who are neutral on Donald Trump.”
Where money will matter is in efforts to reach absentee voters and increase turnout in key battleground states, particularly as the pandemic could make many people afraid to go to the polls, Darnoi said.
In Michigan, where Trump has little room for error after winning the state with fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, Republicans have a huge financial advantage. But Biden will be helped by outside groups and donors, such as the Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed by disaffected Republicans, and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who said he would transfer $18 million in funds from his failed 2020 presidential bid to the Democratic National Committee.
“That will help mitigate the deficiencies, but [Biden] will definitely be at a disadvantage and the pandemic doesn’t help,” Darnoi said.
Biden’s campaign is betting his message will matter over money. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the new technology of his era — radio — to produce weekly “fireside chats” to inspire and rally Americans during the Great Depression and World War II. Biden has attempted to leverage the Internet to conduct his own fireside chats, fund-raisers, and speeches, although the earliest ones were plagued by grainy video and technical glitches.
In front of pearl white bookcases, family photographs, and the folded American flag that flew over the Capitol in honor of his late son Beau, Biden has sought to break through one interview at a time, making appeals for empathy and unity in a time of crisis and critiquing Trump’s response to the outbreak.
“Your strength is in traveling around the country and connecting with people ... looking them in the eye, a hug, a handshake, especially in this crucial months before the election and you can’t do any of that,” CNN’s Brooke Baldwin asked him in March. “Right now, Mr. Vice President, does that worry you?”
“No, it doesn’t worry me, the thing that worries me is whether we get this under control,” Biden said of the pandemic.
Biden’s personality helps make even digital events feel intimate, said Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative in Pennsylvania who organized a virtual happy hour to help target young voters. The two talked climate change and student debt, as Kenyatta sipped on whiskey and Biden on Gatorade.
“I am getting texts from people, calls,” he said. "They say, 'It is such a relief, finally someone is speaking facts, not sugarcoating things, showing empathy.’”
Another Biden fund-raiser this month with California Senator Kamala Harris brought in $150,000 and drew 52 people, including TV writer and producer Norman Lear and Dee Dee Myers, who was White House press secretary during the Clinton administration.
"Now, it’s a different way of campaigning” Biden said during the event when pressed on the new reality. “It’s going to be this way for a little while.”