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How Do You Campaign When You Can’t Hit the Campaign Trail?

Vice President Biden is social distancing.
Vice-President Biden is social distancing. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is Joe Biden’s campaign supposed to look like now? At the moment, it looks like a never-ending procession of group telephone calls, video-conferencing meetings, and email chains between the former vice-president and his aides and advisers, who are all stuck inside their homes along the 150-mile route between Washington, Wilmington, and Philadelphia.

That group has a whole new playbook to write. Even before the full scope of the pandemic became inescapably obvious, this was supposed to be a “reset” moment for the Biden campaign, which last month installed a new campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, to shape up and scale up an effort that bested all its rivals but that was, for long stretches of the past year, underfunded and unclear in message or direction.

But none of the leadership, including O’Malley Dillon, a former aide to Barack Obama who is still close with many in his orbit, has any experience running a campaign under these circumstances — there’s a world where Biden, an old-school pol, could be back kissing babies in diners in two months, but also one where he can’t leave Delaware until he moves into the White House. And while Trump has massive visibility and vast pits of money to work with, Biden’s resources are a little less obvious, and his prescribed next steps are vague enough that his team has been forced into reimagining the role of its organizers and contemplating a summer and fall with no rallies. Some of his allies have even floated rolling out his presidential Cabinet in the next few months in a bid for much-needed attention. Yet money is the most immediate concern, and the biggest focus.

Never much of a fundraiser, Biden struggled for cash at times in 2019 and early this year, and though more funds flowed into his campaign when he started winning primaries in February, even that has slowed amid the economic squeeze of the COVID-19 crisis, according to people briefed on the campaign’s finances. O’Malley Dillon knows what it’s like to run a campaign tight on money after managing Beto O’Rourke’s failed effort last year, but cash is nonetheless necessary for Biden to scale up to general election size, even if it’s not very expensive for him to run a campaign now, without travel and television ads. The party’s recent decision to delay the convention until August only adds to the looming worry: Biden won’t be able to touch money his donors have earmarked for the general election until then. For now, big cash injections have been far and few between, with Biden unable to hold in-person events, and only occasionally dropping into the replacement virtual fundraisers his team has managed to schedule. Instead, top aides and allies like former Virginia governor and DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe have been keeping in touch with donors over Zoom to keep them in the loop on the campaign while they wait for the economic picture to brighten slightly.

The moment has also forced Biden’s team into an even broader strategic rethink than they may have thought necessary a month ago. “The suspended animation here gives Biden a chance to retool his campaign,” said veteran Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh, a top adviser to Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Andrew Yang in 2020. “His turnaround [from Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada] was so extraordinary, they had to put this thing together with a shoestring and bubblegum because of their money woes. So this gives them an opportunity to start to plan.”

Democrats close to Biden think they’ve finally gotten at least an initial handle on the visibility problem that dogged him when he was first confined to his home at the pandemic’s onset. Then, he was relegated to relative obscurity while Trump dominated TV with his daily press conferences. After installing a studio in Biden’s rec room, his campaign has now been scheduling Biden for regular TV appearances and livestreams for voters, as well as launching a podcast. “Joe Biden doesn’t need to, nor can he, compete day-to-day for the news cycle, or Twitter rant–for–Twitter rant with the president. One of the reasons voters see Trump as chaotic and Biden as stable is he’s not playing that game,” said longtime party strategist Jesse Ferguson, a Hillary Clinton campaign alum.

In private, Biden advisers worry that his public presence still isn’t robust enough to effectively reach wavering voters during the crisis — even if Trump’s antics aren’t helping him, they’re still swamping Biden’s messaging. (Recent polling from the progressive Navigator Research group showed people with “mixed views on Trump” say his early inaction was a serious concern for them; a recent CNN survey showed Trump at 44 percent approval — a terrible position to be in for a president seeking reelection, but still his highest mark in the survey in years.) Last Sunday, for example, was supposed to be a rare day without any Trump appearances. That evening, Biden and his wife, Jill, had planned an evening town hall featuring families affected by the coronavirus. But shortly before it was scheduled to begin, the White House issued an updated schedule: Actually, Trump would be speaking that night — at the exact same time as the Bidens. He drowned them out. “In this moment you have a more captive audience, but potentially a harder-to-captivate audience,” said Ferguson.

As such, some informal advisers to Biden have bent his aides’ ears about having a series of high-profile surrogates start holding events of their own and blanketing TV news themselves, to at least get the campaign’s perspective circulating more. Eyeing a long spring and summer in which Biden might not otherwise get any moments in the spotlight at all — especially if his convention is forced to become a virtual conference rather than a prime-time, in-person showcase — some have gone even further. They’re urging him to seize the stage by not just rolling out his running mate soon, but also announcing some of his Cabinet picks, perhaps as soon as early this summer.

When they look ahead, though, those helping steer campaign and party strategy tell me they aren’t expecting the present crisis to upend many of their top-line budgeting priorities. It’s not like the economic disaster is likely to stop them from putting a huge chunk of their cash into advertising in the summer and fall. Still, that public campaign may look different than usual, given many of their targeted voters’ suddenly brand-new media-consumption habits while they’re stuck at home. Some top Democrats are now shifting some specific plans: One wired-in operative pointed me to GlobalWebIndex’s April report showing that nine in ten Americans are simply consuming more content overall, led by broadcast TV, online videos, and online TV streaming. Bully Pulpit Interactive reported a nearly 40 percent increase in video-ad-view rates between February and mid-March. (Duh: “The whole freaking country is staring at their devices all day, every day,” said Teddy Goff, who led digital operations for both Obama and Clinton.)

That’s led some in the party to make the case for stepped-up spending on physical mail pieces — usually a relatively inexpensive part of overall ad budgets, often intended to catch older and busier voters at home — since more of the electorate is now joining them on the couch, eager for contact with the outside world while they’re sidelined from their jobs and social lives. Meanwhile, at least one pro-Biden group has pulled back on its planned investment in drive-time radio ads, figuring that commuters — often suburbanite workers who drive to and from work, a hugely important group for Biden — are spending less time in their cars thanks to office closures. Instead, the group has stepped up its local daytime-television ad budget, seeing evidence that those voters are now often leaving their TVs on throughout the day. Meanwhile, over the past two months, the Democratic National Committee has more than doubled its email list acquisitions in an attempt to expand the group receiving its online messaging, according to a person familiar with the move, and the committee last week reserved $22 million worth of YouTube ads in 14 battleground states. Of course, in plenty of the swing states voters could be back at work, and back to their regular TV and internet schedules, by July. “The nature of this crisis, this challenge, isn’t singular, so there isn’t going to be a moment where it all falls into place. It’s just going to have to be decision after decision,” warned Meg Ansara, a former top Obama and Clinton campaign aide. “I don’t think it’s going to get easier at any point.”

And with door-knocking and canvassing off the table for now, “we are expanding how we view our organizing program,” said Molly Ritner, the Biden camp’s states director. So far, that’s partly meant looking into coordinating virtual house parties and relying on supporters to informally organize online meetups and calls with people in their communities to talk about their lives amid the pandemic, but it’s also meant giving the campaign’s organizers broader remits than before while they’re stuck at home. “One of the things we have done in the short term is realize that our activity does not necessarily have to be as state-specific as it would have in the real world, an on-the-ground campaign,” Ritner said. “We’re just not bound by borders. If the vice-president does an event with first responders, people are going to be able to view that nationally, and that gives us a lot of flexibility.” Already, campaign staffers based all over specifically promoted his recent Zoom “happy hour” to voters in Madison ahead of this month’s Wisconsin primary, just before Bernie Sanders left the race.

Sanders’s exit, too, has occupied a lot of the Biden brain trust’s time. A handful of his most trusted advisers and Sanders’s were in touch behind the scenes for weeks leading up to the Vermonter’s dropout and endorsement, at times talking through specific initial policy concessions Biden could make — he budged on education funding and bankruptcy, and began what many in his world see as an inevitable shift on Medicare policy — and eventually ways for the pair to collaborate further moving forward. Though Biden and Sanders didn’t speak directly until Sanders made his final decision, they both talked extensively with Obama about how to wrap up the primary and pivot effectively to the general election. Obama told both that he expected Sanders to have a major public role in the general election campaign, and both, separately, agreed. Top advisers to the senator, meanwhile, made clear to Biden’s inner circle that they had no intention of making this spring and summer look like 2016’s, when Sanders fought Clinton to the final days of the campaign, battling for specific policy changes and holding back his support until July. Instead, the Sanders and Biden representatives landed on a plan to announce “working groups” focused on six policy areas that would give the democratic socialist a say in the nominee’s direction.

For now, though, Biden knows he still needs to focus on swaying some of Sanders’s more skeptical progressive backers, especially the loudest ones, all while trying to raise enough money to mount a competitive campaign this summer. That means the Biden camp may need to rely more on the wider party infrastructure than it might have previously expected for help with organizing and ads. Already, each node on the web of super-PACs backing Biden now expects to be responsible for a large portion of the party’s overall television and digital spending. One of the groups, American Bridge, had been knocking on 750 doors a day in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in search of voters and stories to feature in their ads. Now, though, the group is making calls, then using Zoom or FaceTime to interview potential participants who are either disillusioned Trump voters, Americans with affecting coronavirus stories, or ardent Biden backers.

Meanwhile, the DNC is now considering its organizer-hiring process to be part of its digital plan — emphasizing digital training and onboarding compared to the pre-coronavirus world — in case the field workers won’t be able to knock on doors until late in the game, if at all. “At this point it’s not like you have a big field team and a little digital team. If you were thinking like that before, you were behind the times,” said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, whose state was one of the battlegrounds to receive DNC funds to build up its organizing team. “If you’re thinking like that now, you’re probably not going to win.”The team building Biden’s on-the-ground operation is trying to operate without any assumptions about what the late summer and fall will look like, at least as far as social-distancing guidelines that could keep their canvassers off the streets are concerned. “We’re going to keep listening to experts and following the science and control what we can control,” said Ritner. “We’re not massively assuming any one outcome.”

“These presidential campaigns are won by the narrative, and who’s in control of the information flow to voters, not a tactic over here and a tactic over there,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager. “It’s about setting something up that will advance your strategy no matter what happens. For example, we can’t knock on doors today, but we certainly can assign volunteers a set of voters that are really important for us to go talk to. A volunteer can track those people down on social media and try to reach them that way. They can write them a handwritten letter, they can track them down on the phone and leave them a really meaningful message. Just because we can’t talk to people in person doesn’t mean we can’t talk to people.”

At least in theory, Mook, said, this is all giving campaigns a chance to rethink their antiquated approaches to campaigning. “Rallies are just a tactic from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when there wasn’t broadcast communications, when you had to go out there and rally people. Now it’s a way to gain a traditional engagement between print and TV reporters and the campaign. It’s what people are used to,” Mook continued. But, he said, that’s “just like the convention: we don’t have to gather in a city and do that.”

Anyway, Democrats close to Biden are fond of pointing out, it’s still April.

“We’ve got a lot of hand-wringers in our party, but we’ve got lots of time,” said McAuliffe, pointing out that the primary’s early finish has granted Biden plenty of breathing room. And it’s not like Trump is using this time to help himself. “You’ve got a president who goes out on TV every single day and lies to us.” One top Biden adviser I spoke with over the phone last week deployed whatever the audible version of a shrug is when I asked if he was concerned about all the uncertainty. The story of the week was the election in Wisconsin, where Republicans had fought efforts to postpone the votes, leading to major questions about how, exactly, November’s elections would unfold. “At the end of the day, people worry about it too much internally,” the adviser said. “We’re all making this up as we go.”

How Do You Campaign When You Can’t Hit the Campaign Trail?