Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared well on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination in the weeks before the COVID-19 virus essentially ground the party’s nominating contest to a screeching halt for the next few weeks amid postponed primaries.
However, the pandemic has also presented an opportunity for the former vice president to demonstrate the type of leadership he’s promised he would provide to voters for nearly a year with actions that preview a possible President Biden.
“I find myself, literally on the phone with my key advisors, medical advisors and economic advisors literally four or five hours a day, going through detailed memoranda on what we should be doing,” Biden said on a call for press Friday afternoon.
“My whole focus has basically been, how we deal with this crisis. And quite frankly, thus far has been less about how we campaign or make stark differences between the president and I. I think some are just self-evident, but the bottom line is that...my whole rationality here is to make sure that we focus on the urgent need of the American people,” Biden continued.
Biden’s campaign is now navigating how to take the leadership mantle on amid the global crisis, without the power and gravitas that comes with the title of ‘Commander in Chief -- a fact Trump’s election campaign is happy to point out.
“The President is leading an unprecedented mobilization of America against the coronavirus and all Joe Biden can offer is ineffective partisan sniping from the sidelines,” Trump campaign Communications Director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.
For his part, Biden says he's been dealing with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leaders Chuck Schumer "regularly," amid the crisis, and has connected with some state and local officials as well. The former vice president has also not been shy about his contempt for Trump’s response, excoriating the president for his over-promises to the American people.
“President Trump, stop saying false things, will ya? People are worried, they're really frightened. And when these things don't come through you just exacerbate their concerns. Stop saying false things that make you sound like a hero, and start putting the full weight in the federal government behind finding fast, safe and effective treatments,” Biden said Friday.
All of this comes after two days without public events with Biden, and at a natural ‘reset’ point in the race: Biden has earned at least 1,080 of the 1,991 delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination, according to ABC News’ delegate count--effectively ending any viable path to the nomination for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But it also comes as the campaign is reimagining what the next several weeks will look like with remote campaigning.
Working behind the scenes
The former vice president has been working from Wilmington, Delaware, spending his time on calls with staff, receiving policy briefings, and connecting with political endorsers and supporters over the past few days, according to Biden and his staff. On a call with reporters Friday afternoon, Biden said he was spending four to five hours on the phone with his economic and medical advisors, and following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) about how to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I'm having constant telephone conferences. A few staff show up and we're following the CDC guidelines: people are coming in with masks on and wearing gloves and so on,” Biden said of the precautions he and his team are taking as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United State continued to rise.
The campaign’s goal, according to a senior Biden aide, is to not only to provide information for the general public on the virus, but also hold the Trump administration to account and provide the leadership to convince voters to vote for Biden come November.
But as his campaign adjusts their day-to-day operations to accomplish that goal, they are confronting the challenges and their own shortcomings that come with trying to construct a digital campaign operation for a candidate so reliant on in-person interactions.
The campaign learned the challenge in a major way last Friday, when a town hall with Illinois voters faced disastrous technical issues. The campaign didn’t attempt another video message with the vice president until the following Tuesday night when Biden spoke via livestream following three more primary wins, and opted for a town hall by telephone on the eve of the contests.
Biden is also facing criticism for being largely absent to the public since Tuesday’s primaries. The former vice president has not been seen or heard by voters directly since his Tuesday night address, leading to the hashtag “#WhereisJoeBiden” to trend on Twitter.
Supporters of both Vermont Sen Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump have questioned why a presidential campaign arguing for their candidate to hold the highest office in the land is struggling to make him visible to the public in the midst of the crisis.
The Biden campaign declined to respond to the criticisms raised by the hashtag.
“The bottom line is that everything from providing better access to where I physically live and be able to broadcast from there, as well as our headquarters is underway. We've hired a professional team to do that now,” Biden told reporters.
“It's a little above my pay-grade, as to how we do that, but that's desperately what we're trying to do because I want to be in daily or at least you know significant contact with the American people and communicate what I would be doing what I think we should be doing and how we should be doing it, but I promise you, that's on the way, hopefully, God willing, by Monday.”
A source with knowledge of the campaign said Biden's team is working on scaling up that infrastructure and dealing with the realities of Biden’s Wilmington Home, like the fact that there aren’t particularly high ceilings, which can make lighting a challenge.
And despite multiple attempts to gain more clarity into the candidate’s plans, the campaign did not provide any detailed information on any upcoming events or the day-to-day activities of the former vice president.
Campaigning in a "brave new world"
As campaigns adjust to the new normal, they’re also confronting the increasingly clear reality that the challenges presented by running for president in the midst of a global, society-altering pandemic are unprecedented.
“There's no playbook for this, we don't have a set procedure for what to do,” said Tim Lim, a Democratic advertising strategist that aided President Barack Obama’s re-election effort and served on the National Finance Committee for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The Biden campaign, keenly aware of that new reality, is asking for help in how they craft their strategy in the weeks ahead.
Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director, emailed supporters earlier this week asking for input and ideas on how they can adapt to the “brave new world” of campaigning without the option of in-person events.
The campaign is thinking through ways to capitalize on what they see as Biden’s “superpower,” his ability to connect one-one-one with voters.
"How do we make sure that the VP is engaging with his supporters in this moment? That people are checking in on each other? So we're making sure that part of his day is calling through grassroots supporters and making sure they have a chance to interact with him in that capacity,” Flaherty said in an interview with ABC News.
A virtual rope line, enabling Biden to speak with individual voters after events, podcasts, and Google hangouts with medical experts amid the coronavirus crisis are ideas under consideration.
Another example thrown out on a call with volunteers Wednesday night was Michelle Kwan, the campaign’s director of surrogates, might be doing a yoga session with supporters, according to one volunteer on the call.
Another idea they’ve employed via a fundraising email sent Friday: a chance to video chat with the candidate himself.
While social distancing requires the campaign to branch out in new and interesting way to engage voters -- Flaherty argued that the campaign has always been gearing up to highlight Biden's leadership ahead of the general election, but is now adapting to an entirely different "battlefield."
"That sense of community, driving people to action, interactivity online, being in the places where people are and positioning the VP as the president. And...showing his leadership in these moments -- that was always gonna be what we have to do anyway. It's just that overnight...the whole battlefield sort of shifted online,” Flaherty said.
“We're drinking from the fire hose in the best way possible,” he added.
The campaign said while much of their content will focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and displaying Biden’s leadership in the uncertain times, there is still a campaign underway--requiring them to rethink certain elements of outreach already in place.
“We're almost even reframing how we think about email to focus on engagements right? How many people are, you know, signing a petition or taking an action versus like how are we getting concrete dollars and so, it's a bit of a reframing of the program to just think about that level of engagement and depth with our supporters as well as the wide reach that we're trying to get,” Flaherty said.
Whatever the method, the campaign’s digital infrastructure and strategy has now become paramount to its success.
“Your digital strategist has become the most important person in the room,” Lim said. “If you're not listening to that person then you're not gonna be able to move your campaign forward.”
The Bernie Sanders factor
While Biden and his team work to put the infrastructure and campaign strategy in place to cement their role as Trump’s counterpoint amid the crisis, there is one other unknown for the campaign: Sanders and his plans for the future of his candidacy.
While Biden’s team has said they don’t see any viable path forward for the Vermont senator, the campaign said they are not calling on Sanders to leave the race, telling volunteers they will continue to demonstrate that the Sanders' team deserves time to make that personal decision on their Wednesday call.
“Sen. Sanders is going to be having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign. In the immediate term, however, he is focused on the government response to the coronavirus outbreak and ensuring that we take care of working people and the most vulnerable,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir wrote in a statement released Wednesday.
Behind the scenes, the campaigns are talking--but focusing on the response to the coronavirus and its impact on their respective campaign.
“Since last week, the Biden and Sanders campaigns have been in regular contact at a senior level to discuss how the coronavirus is affecting the campaigns, how to adjust schedules and activities in light of that – as well as to discuss both Vice President Biden’s and Senator Sanders’ ideas on policy responses to the virus,” Biden’s Deputy Campaign Manager and Communication’s Director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement Thursday.
As more states postpone their primary contests, the impacts COVID-19, what the campaign looks like from here and Sanders’ continuation in the race raise questions for the larger Democratic Party.
“Typically, a campaign would start thinking about the general election which means setting up a joint committee with the DNC and the State Parties. Historically, fundraising for a joint committee is quite reliant on in-person events,” said Rufus Gifford, a former ambassador to Denmark and a top Biden fundraiser.
Biden struggled early and often in the campaign to maintain the fundraising pace of some of his top 2020 rivals, and now faces an incumbent GOP president and a Republican National Committee (RNC) that has been stockpiling cash since Trump’s inauguration.
While his fundraising has rebounded in recent weeks, fueled by his string of primary victories, back in October, Biden’s campaign burned through significantly more cash than it took in, leaving him with a fraction of the money some of his better-funded rivals had at the time.
At the time of its last filing the Trump campaign, which has enjoyed the ability to jointly raise money with the RNC, reported having over $94 million cash on hand, setting up a lopsided fundraising deficit with whatever Democrat he faces.
“My concern right now would be two-fold: one, If the public health crisis remains in place for months and events cannot be part of the equation, all campaigns will have to adjust. It’s of course doable but will be harder considering the amount of money that needs to be raised in order to defeat Trump in November," Giffords said.
“Two, If Bernie stays in the race and the primary continues, it is more difficult for Biden to pivot to the general election. We have some time still but the more we have the better. I hope we are not having this same conversation in June”.