How Trump and Biden are trying to run virtual campaigns during coronavirus

President Donald Trump’s campaign has ridiculed rival Democrat Joe Biden for remaining cloistered during the

President Donald Trump’s campaign has ridiculed rival Democrat Joe Biden for remaining cloistered during the pandemic, forced to give speeches, meet activists and raise money almost entirely from the seclusion of his basement in Wilmington, Delaware.

But as precautions and concerns about COVID-19 have grown, Trump has also halted his signature rallies at least temporarily and started his own virtual gatherings to keep in touch with voters.

“They’re making things up on the fly and seeing what works,” said Bob Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. “You use everything that’s available to you.”

Spikes in COVID-19 cases and social distance measures used to slow the spreading virus have forced the Trump and Biden teams to adjust their campaigns in ways never seen in history. Rallies, handshakes and traditional grassroots organizing are out. They’ve been replaced with a barrage of email, texts, candidate videos, Zoom meetings and virtual town halls.

“It’s totally different,” said Ford O’Connell, adjunct professor at George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management who has worked on Republican campaigns including the late Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential run. “There is no playbook to campaigning in the coronavirus era.”

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Results of the changes have already begun rippling across the campaigns. Television advertising surged in battleground states. But party conventions that traditionally drew attention for weeks in August will be scaled back without huge crowds in large arenas.

As the pandemic changes how candidates interact with voters, the uncertainties spread down the ballot to battleground Senate races as Democrats try to wrest control over that chamber because whoever wins the White House will want a friendly Congress to approve his agenda.

“The virus is being seen through such a political lens even as we’ve topped 150,000 deaths,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I think we just don’t know how the next few months are going to play out.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge President Donald Trump, speaks July 28, 2020, at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge President Donald Trump, speaks July 28, 2020, at a campaign event at the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del.

Biden criticized for basement view

The pandemic hangs over the campaigns, both in curtailing their plans and in gauging how candidates respond to the health and economic crisis.

But even before the pandemic, Biden cultivated a remote video audience during the primaries and more recently as he turns toward the general election. Holding smaller events online allows him to appeal directly to interest groups and sometimes take questions.

“It’s trying to recreate ‘normal’ in what is certainly not normal,” Oldendick said.

The Trump campaign initially ridiculed Biden for being stuck in his basement or lacking the stamina to leave. Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said June 16 that Biden avoided traveling and meeting voters because of fears he would make mistakes.

“This is obviously a tactic to help him avoid errors and embarrassing, lost trains of thought, while also conveniently preventing the press corps from asking him any questions in person,” Murtaugh said.

But so far it hasn’t hurt. Biden built a studio in his Wilmington basement and has held numerous rallies by videoconference that he said have been viewed a combined 340 million times. He typically has surrogates such as lawmakers, governors or political activists join him in talking to a specific audience such as a state or an interest group.

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Biden delivered speeches to small groups in Philadelphia and Wilmington. And he held his own virtual exchanges, speaking and answering questions from members of groups such as the American Federation of Teachers and spending a day in the shoes of Service Employees International Union. Former President Barack Obama joined Biden for a video July 23 to discuss the economy, health care and race relations.

“I never thought it possible to run a virtual campaign but so far it’s working,” Biden said during a July 20 virtual fundraiser.

The lack of in-person campaigning has made it difficult for grassroots groups to build enthusiasm for a candidate or campaign that was fueled traditionally at gatherings.

“We’re even struggling in our organizing,” said Montserrat Arredondo, executive director of the advocacy group One Arizona, which promotes civic engagement. “It’s hard to feel excited about this election given the moment that we’re in and the inability of leaders to really execute a candidate-run campaign that really is about people being charmed by someone.”

President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 18, 2020.
President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America’s small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 18, 2020.

Trump works the phones

Trump stampeded into the White House through huge rallies of thunderous supporters, events he continued to hold while in office. But he halted in-person rallies for the time  after drawing a disappointing crowd in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and cited the weather in canceling a July 11 rally in Portsmouth, N.H. He told Fox News Sunday on July 19 he wanted to hold a big rally in Michigan but was told he couldn’t.

“Trump likes the rallies because for him it’s about energizing his followers and his folks tend to evangelize their friends, families and neighbors,” O’Connell said. “I think not being able to campaign has taken a greater toll on Trump than the Biden folks.”

Even so, Trump enjoys the nationally televised megaphone of White House news conferences, impromptu question-and-answer sessions on the lawn and meetings with police or health care workers to amplify his message. In July, he resumed pandemic briefings, during which he promotes the development of therapeutic treatments and vaccines to combat the growing numbers of infections and deaths.

Trump began a series of his own telephone rallies, including with supporters in Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire and Maine. The calls are available through Trump’s Facebook page, which features photos of him on the phone, either in black and white looking out a window or in color sitting across a desk with some white flowers, while supporters listen along on their computers.

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The events offered Trump a chance to speak for about a half-hour highlighting issues such as nominating judges to federal courts, fighting illegal immigration or dealing with China on trade and the pandemic. He tailored comments to states with messages about shipbuilding in Wisconsin, farming in Iowa and fisheries in Maine and New Hampshire.

Trump’s relatives and allies also hold events for him or host him on video.. Donald Trump Jr. has an online program called “Triggered” where he interviewed the president about his accomplishments.

“This is a very vital election,” Trump told Wisconsin listeners. “If we don’t win it, our country will never be able to recover. It will be a disaster.”

New conventional wisdom

Party conventions traditionally offered a party and its candidates the chance to dominate television for a summer week. Rising stars could make an impression with speeches, such as when Barack Obama did in 2004 as an Illinois state senator. Or officials could create an iconic moment, such as then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee in 2008 promoting her toughness by noting the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: “Lipstick.” Nominees got to celebrate their acceptance speeches – complete with a balloon drop and confetti – with a captive national audience.

Health concerns will make this year’s conventions more diffuse. Democrats decided against having delegates meet in Milwaukee from Aug. 17 to 20, with virtual speeches planned instead. Biden will deliver his acceptance speech from Delaware.

Republicans concerned about restrictions in Charlotte, N.C., investigated moving part of their convention Aug. 24 to 27 to Jacksonville, Florida. But Trump dropped the plan as Florida infections spiked. Trump has suggested he might accept the Republican nomination from the White House – and his team is exploring other options like Gettysburg or the Liberty Bell – rather than travel to Charlotte, N.C.

Joe Biden meets with Pennsylvania families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Joe Biden meets with Pennsylvania families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, suggests the candidates don’t sacrifice much in not holding traditional conventions. The gatherings, he said, had been criticized before the pandemic as stage-managed confections rather than events of a century ago that decided nominees and hammered out platforms.

“I’m not sure how much is lost politically to each party with conventions going virtual,” Dallek said. “There’s not a whole lot of evidence that conventions over the past three or four decades made a major or even a minor difference in who won.”

But what might be lost are the speaking opportunities for younger politicians to make a name for themselves.

“It is a missed opportunity for some of them,” Dallek said. “The lack of a convention deprives some of that oxygen that (Trump) would have liked to have.”

But the same limitation prevents discord, such as a progressive politician taking the Democratic stage and urging to defund the police, which Biden has disavowed, or Republican candidates distancing themselves from Trump.

“There is less opportunity for mischief within the parties, for critics or people who are out of step,” Dallek said.

Campaign ads swamp 2016 pace

Without many public personal appearances, presidential campaign travel has been way down this year, making for a campaign reliant on air time. 

The candidates spent $12 million from April through June on travel and events compared to $34 million in 2016, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Video advertising – broadcast, cable and online – expanded to fill part of the void left by  personal appearances, with presidential campaigns spending 54% of their funding on media this year, compared to nearly 41% in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

One dynamic of the pandemic is that voters staying at home have more time to receive political messages or look for information favorable or unfavorable for a candidate.

“I don’t know if they’re more interested, but they’re more bombarded,” Oldendick said. “It’s almost like you can’t escape it.”

Trump has spent $126 million on media this cycle to Biden’s nearly $76 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics – and more is on the way. 

Biden’s campaign announced last week it reserved $280 million in TV and digital ads across 15 states. Trump has reserved $145 million in TV ads to start after Labor Day, according to a review of data from Kantar/CMAG by the Associated Press.

Both teams are pushing those ads in crucial swing states where they’d normally spend time campaigning in-person. 

Through mid-July, Biden spent six times more on TV ads in three key Midwest states than Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to Advertising Analytics, which compiled the data for McClatchy newspapers. Biden and Democratic groups spent $17.3 million in Pennsylvania, $12.4 million in Michigan and $9.6 million in Wisconsin, compared to Clinton and Democratic allies who spent $6.3 million total in the three states.

Republicans also invested heavily in the states that Trump won narrowly in 2016, with five times more spending this year than in his previous campaign. Trump’s campaign recently reserved $5 million in air time in Ohio and Iowa, according to Advertising Analytics

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It’s not just the presidential races affected by the new campaign challenges, it’s the fight for the Republican-controlled Senate, where Democrats want to reclaim the majority.

“Democrats advantage when it comes to digital fundraising,” said Taylor of Cook Political Report, which rated Democrats as “favored” to reclaim control of the Senate. “Republicans rely more on large-dollar donors and those are typically more event driven. That is very hard to do. Some of these donors might not want to sit through a Zoom call that has wonky connections or people unmuting or muting themselves.”

Money won’t necessarily determine who wins. But Republican incumbents have argued that the pandemic has prevented closer scrutiny of their Democratic challengers. Precautions have also become political, as some Republicans and their supporters flout rules for wearing masks.

“We do see most candidates doing virtual events,” Taylor said. “It’s put a squeeze on every single candidate out there.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump, Joe Biden are running virtual campaigns amid coronavirus

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