Joe Biden reached a new and heady milestone when he shellacked Bernie Sanders in Florida, Illinois and Arizona to become the de facto Democratic nominee for president.
But there was no soaring speech to acknowledge the moment. He never took the stage amid a sea of Biden signs or before an adoring crowd on national television. Biden was instead stuck in a makeshift studio in his Delaware home, webcasting his remarks with a low-quality personal computer camera against a straight-out-of-YouTube black backdrop and two American flags.
He warned about the coronavirus contagion. He offered an olive branch to Bernie Sanders. Then, despite two consecutive weeks of smashing victories, he all but disappeared from the news cycle for days.
The moment was a perfect distillation of Biden’s current predicament — in a state of suspended political animation, trapped between a rival who refuses to quit and the global pandemic that has all but shut down the Democratic primary campaign.
Because Sanders won’t quit, Biden can’t fully pivot to the general election. He can’t truly unite the party’s warring factions. Nor can he begin stockpiling the vast amounts of money he’ll need for November. His momentum has effectively been stopped cold.
A source familiar with the Democratic National Committee’s discussions says the party offered both the Biden and Sanders campaigns the opportunity to open joint-fundraising accounts. But since Sanders declined, the party is reluctant to enter into one with Biden because of the bad optics of seeming to help one candidate.
“That’s going to eventually hurt Biden with financing if the DNC doesn’t go ahead with this,” the source said.
Stuck at home because of coronavirus precautions, Biden also can’t meet with donors at fundraisers — which, in turn, may become less lucrative with an economy that’s sinking into recession or perhaps worse.
“It’s a tough position,” said Matt Littman, who’s hosting a virtual fundraiser for Biden next month that the candidate and donors will attend through tele-conferencing software.
“It’s harder to raise money when there’s no face-to-face meeting and personal contact,” Littman said. “And some of the normal people I have to raise money from I can’t count on. They have their own concerns. They have to keep their houses. The universe of people who will donate money will be smaller.”
For the foreseeable future, all live campaign events are canceled, so he can’t hit the stump to try to capitalize on the excitement he had just stoked. His ability to criticize Trump on anything other than his performance on coronavirus response and preparedness is constrained by the emergency-like conditions.
As new polling suggests that Trump’s approval for responding to the virus is improving, some of Biden’s fellow Democrats worry he’s paralyzed himself.
“Biden is only in limbo if he keeps himself there. He’s only in a predicament to the degree he chooses to view himself in one,” said Jeff Hauser, a veteran of progressive politics who is head of the Revolving Door Project, which watchdogs executive branch appointees.
“Joe Biden can either complain about the fact that he is not getting significant media coverage or he could do something to change that,” Hauser said. “He needs to offer an alternative and offer a running play-by-play critique of the failings of this administration.”
Biden aides and allies, however, are projecting an aura of calm, saying Trump’s false claims and reinvented history about the virus will haunt him on their own as the economy craters. The former vice president pledged to call him out on it by Monday — but made the statement via conference call Friday with reporters instead of on camera.
Meanwhile, his staff is scattered, communicating via teleconferencing, email and conference call. Some remain holed up in Philadelphia apartments near campaign headquarters but others went home to Washington. A few are near the candidate in Wilmington, Delaware. Another is in the mountains of Puerto Rico.
The headquarters and campaign trail now run through Biden’s living room as his staff scrambles to increase his social media outreach to compensate for the social distancing.
The first step: installing a better video camera in Biden’s house, which will soon have broadcast-ready capabilities and high-quality livestreaming software. To limit the risk of infecting the candidate, the number of staffers is limited within the house.
The campaign also plans to flood social media with Biden to promote the brand of the former vice president who helped lead the nation’s Ebola virus response, has a vast knowledge of domestic and foreign policy and is known both as comforter-in-chief as well as the ice-cream-eating, aviator-shade-wearing everyman parodied in The Onion.
“The thing that’s good about Joe Biden and the way the internet thinks about him is that there is a sense of brand, people know him as vice president, and they know ice cream and aviators. For us, we have to evolve from ice cream and aviators and being vice president to being commander-in-chief, while remaining relatable and true to his personality. That’s the balance,” said Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director.
“Our digital operation is putting out five-minute Iran crisis explainers and koozies that say, ‘keep it cool kid.’ It’s always been this tension,” Flaherty said. “And for us, the challenge and the opportunity is how we keep it between the buoys and present the best image of Joe Biden.”
To increase voters’ sense of intimacy with Biden — who revels in one-on-one time with voters after public events — the campaign is discussing ways to find the technology and invent a “virtual rope-line” in which voters would wait in an electronic “queue” to speak with him briefly face-to-face, albeit via livestream.
The campaign is also planning to hold more tele-town halls and is discussing a Biden podcast, in addition to pumping out more video clips of him.
In some ways, the Biden campaign wants to give followers and viewers a sense of Biden as if he were a character in a reality show, building a loyal following online similar to the way former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s campaign did. Flaherty, who was O’Rourke’s digital director, said Biden’s social media presence will be unique to him. So unlike O’Rourke, Biden won’t be livestreaming from the dentist office chair or skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot.
Flaherty said the campaign always planned to have a heavy social-media focus. The only major difference now is the campaign is completely online and it has to ramp up faster and on a bigger scale.
From the start, the campaign was designed to limit the news media’s interactions with Biden due to his reputation for gaffes and going off-script, which in some ways makes Biden’s social distancing a boon — his campaign can more tightly control his image. Rallies, after all, are only a small part of a campaign, said Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager.
“The vast majority of voters don’t interact with campaigns by attending rallies. They experience the campaign through TV coverage, social media, and advertising, and contact from volunteers, all of which will still continue,” Mook said. “This isn’t the end of the campaign trail, but rather it’s full transition into the digital space.”
But the Biden campaign knows that time is precious. Trump’s campaign is preparing to unload on Biden to negatively define him before he’s the nominee and consolidates his base, which is harder now with Sanders still hanging around. Trump already has a far-bigger social media following, presence and reach than Biden.
“With respect to the Trump camp — the entire right in general — they’re all rallying against one candidate: Biden. It’s so concentrated. But on the left, it’s still pretty fractured,” said Glenn Parham, founder of the Republican political intelligence firm Pundit Analytics. “The left is starting to funnel into Biden, but a lot of different advocacy groups are running attack ads against Joe and are supporting other candidates, even ones that have dropped out, which is kind of absurd.”
On the right, he said, the volume and concentrated fire “are orders of magnitude greater than on the left.”
While Trump is more negatively affected on the campaign trail by coronavirus than Biden — the president’s campaign revolves around his big rallies — he has been able to occupy center stage by giving a daily White House press briefing.
Joe Lockhart, former White House spokesman for the Clinton administration, said Biden needs to carefully calibrate his response to Trump.
“It’s very tricky. When you’re in a crisis, there can only be one president. Just attacking him every day is a bad strategy,” said Lockhart, anticipating the Trump campaign’s response leveled Friday at Biden.
“Where I think Biden is going is if he gives a series of strategic speeches that talk about the importance of preparing, the importance of government pulling together and the importance of being straight with the American public,” Lockhart said.
Steve Schale, leader of the pro-Biden super PAC Unite The Country, said voters might still want an abeyance in the appearance of politicking in a time of crisis, at least in the short term. Schale said he was supposed to be on the road this week raising money from donors — a task made easier by Biden’s emergence as the all-but-certain nominee. But he’s stuck at home along with nearly everyone else.
“This is affecting everyone’s lives in ways we didn’t imagine, not just Biden,” Schale said. “There’s no playbook for this.”