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There was a time not long ago when there was a relatively normal presidential campaign with regular campaign events — when Joe Biden and Donald Trump flew around the country rallying their supporters preparing for a relatively normal general election.
That time is very much over. What’s left of the presidential campaign is now happening almost exclusively online and on TV. For Trump, that’s been fine: The coronavirus pandemic has given him an endless media platform through daily televised briefings. And Trump has been very online since becoming a presidential candidate five years ago; his digital director from that first campaign, known for valuing Facebook over traditional media, is now his reelection campaign manager.
It’s been a steeper adjustment for Biden. His sudden surge to likely Democratic presidential nominee came just as the coronavirus began to spread across the US, leaving a former senator and vice president never known for being hip to the internet in the position of trying to build a broad, Trump-defeating coalition via Zoom.
"In some ways this is the world that every digital person in every digital story you’ve ever written has said would come,” Biden digital director Rob Flaherty told BuzzFeed News in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I think one of the things that’s interesting is that the stuff that we’re doing now is not that different than the stuff that we would need to do to win in a general [election]."
Biden campaign officials said they began discussing the need for digital alternatives in late January, before the coronavirus became a severe health crisis in the US. (Biden expressed concerns at the time in a USA Today opinion piece.) For example, they knew they’d need a TV studio in his hometown, Wilmington, Delaware. But they didn’t realize that stay-at-home orders and social distancing would require one to be built in Biden’s basement.
Nearly every aspect of the first days of Biden’s dispatches from that new broadcasting studio was consistent. From Monday to Friday last week, he appeared in front of a backdrop of books and Americana for a press briefing over Zoom, talking head interviews on cable news, and roundtables with young voters and first responders; a lamp to his right always turned on, he repeatedly tried to reassure Americans that the country “won’t be defeated” by an “invisible” enemy. He hammered a critique about the president’s slow response to the coronavirus threat.
Biden’s increased presence online and on TV over the last two weeks also has answered skepticism his online adversaries have been hurling, even if the answers aren’t always appointment viewing on live TV. “Where Is Joe Biden?” had emerged as a memeified pressure point meant to raise suspicion or criticism over his retreat from the public eye. “Thanks for giving me the time — so they don’t wonder where I am,” Biden said Monday as he ended an interview on MSNBC.
"We were just focused on getting him out there as soon as we could get him out there,” Flaherty said Wednesday. “I think if people are saying ‘Where is Joe?’ right now, they’re operating in bad faith. We’re doing TV every day … If you’re asking ‘Where’s Joe?’ you know where to find him now."
One problem for the Biden campaign has been the ticker count of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths — the only story Americans seem to be paying attention to — on cable news networks that supersede any shot he had at making an impact.
“I think it is very helpful for people to hear and see him,” Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a former presidential candidate now supporting Biden, told BuzzFeed News. “Not sure it’s breaking through, but it does provide the contrast he wants. Steady, experienced, and empathetic, servant leadership. Which a stark contrast to the president’s ego-centered, divisive example.”
When Biden gave his first address last week on the coronavirus and laid out his suggestions for the president, none of the major networks carried his speech live, as they instead broadcast one of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings. Last Tuesday, when Biden was set to do an interview with the cohosts of The View, local networks in New York and Washington, DC, cut away to air briefings from Cuomo and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser.
The week was a first for a Biden team that seemed to focus little on digital outreach during the primary. At early points in the campaign, staffers argued that what was happening online was not reflective of what was happening in the real world, though that attitude began to change once Biden began his quick march to likely nominee status.
There were some kinks in the execution. Reporters and voters were left wondering when livestreams would actually start, after delays and schedule changes. Biden started his first livestreamed events looking off camera to ask if they “were ready to go.” Audio cut out during town halls. At the same time, Bernie Sanders’ now–long shot campaign held highly produced live campaign events recorded in multiple locations that streamed without a hitch, and Trump’s rapid-response team jumped on every opportunity to point out Biden’s initial technical difficulties. Biden coughed on camera during a CNN interview and was chastised by Jake Tapper for not coughing into his elbow. Soon after, Trump retweeted a heavily edited clip of Biden coughing and clearing his throat during live TV hits, declaring “The Democrat’s Best & Finest!”
Trump, meanwhile, is everywhere. He is on TV every night, updating the nation on the coronavirus crisis from the White House briefing room podium, while also throwing in digs at the media and Biden and attempting to set a narrative that erases his own early role in downplaying the virus. He leaves it to the experts — Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx — to deliver the toughest information, as he did this Tuesday, passing to them when asked a question about a projected death toll of at least 100,000 Americans.
When he is not at the podium, he is calling into Fox News, sometimes in the morning, sometimes late at night. He is tweeting incessantly to his 75 million Twitter followers, amplified by an army of supporters and surrogates. Trump was an overwhelming presence in the lives of many Americans in normal times; with the coronavirus crisis, he is in their faces all the time.
While not a perfect measure, one clean way of visualizing just how much Trump has retaken America’s attention is on Google Trends, where Biden briefly spiked over Trump in early March following his giant Super Tuesday wins and has since dropped and virtually flatlined in the last 10 days (both Trump and Biden are basically nonexistent compared to searches for the term “coronavirus”).
Biden’s trying to be everywhere himself, but without the power of a president or governor, his appearances carry less urgency. On a Saturday in late March, the Biden campaign popped into DJ D-Nice’s “Club Quarantine” set on Instagram to comment a thumbs up to the 70,000 people who’d tuned in to watch the livestream, before barreling into a week of livestreamed events and interviews across CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and an interview posted to YouTube with Jimmy Kimmel.
Biden has taken an optimistic position on how his message is being amplified. “Well, the irony is, virtual campaigning, I'll probably reach more people than I would out there shaking hands,” Biden told the cohosts of The View. The campaign had touted that it had been able to reach 3.5 million people who had watched his Monday morning remarks at some point.
From Saturday, March 21, through Saturday, March 28, Biden’s content racked up more than 20 million views — a figure he shared Sunday on Meet the Press.
"There’s two internet versions of Joe Biden that people love. One is empathy — the woman in the elevator at the New York Times,” said Flaherty, referring to a viral video of Biden’s friendly encounter with an elevator operator after a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board. “And then there’s explainer-in-chief, and this sort of calming presence. The videos that have done best for us have always been in one of those two categories."
The “explainer-in-chief” approach is central to a podcast Biden launched this week, titled Here’s the Deal — a nod to one of his frequent sayings. The first installment, set to a melodramatic movie trailer–like score, featured Biden and his longtime adviser Ron Klain, who headed up the Obama administration’s efforts to combat the 2014 Ebola outbreak, interviewing each other. “Well, it’s good to be doing my very first podcast,” Biden tells Klain at one point. “Things are changing an awful lot.”
Trump’s campaign is able to rely on an already flush treasure chest — $225 million cash on hand when the campaign and RNC, and their joint committees like Trump Victory, are combined — and a developed digital operation to plow through the next few months. By comparison, Biden’s campaign, after two largely rough and expensive months, entered March with about $12 million on hand, though that was before his Super Tuesday surge and the departures of several candidates who threw their support to him.
“The Trump Campaign has a significant advantage because of our early and ongoing investment in data and technological infrastructure,” Ken Farnaso, the campaign’s deputy press secretary, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “As part of our efforts to reelect the President this November, we are hosting virtual events, training members of the Trump Neighborhood Teams online, activating the massive volunteer network to make calls on behalf of the President, and continuing our efforts to register voters online.” Last Saturday, he said, Trump supporters made almost 1.5 million calls from their homes.
On March 13, as the world was still coming to terms with the coronavirus crisis — Japan was still considering whether to put off the 2020 Olympics, and the Trump Victory committee was informing the nearly 900 people who attended a fundraising brunch at Mar-a-Lago that one of them had tested positive for COVID-19 — the Trump campaign said it was shifting to “virtual and digital campaign tools.”
“With our field organization largely built out and over half a million volunteers already engaged, we are in an incredibly strong position to activate an aggressive digital and virtual political operation," RNC chair Ronna McDaniel said at the time.
The campaign made the shift to being a “virtual campaign” on March 26, and said it has seen a doubling in web traffic to its various campaign sites since last week. That evening, it hosted the first of what are expected to be several “digital broadcast panels,” which are basically group video chats by Trump campaign staff, beamed from their homes onto the computers and phones of whomever chooses to tune in. That night, it was a Women for Trump event. This week, it hosted one for Latinos for Trump.
Lara Trump, a senior campaign aide and the president’s daughter-in-law, hosted the Women for Trump discussion, with campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany and political director Chris Carr.
“This is a first for us,” Lara Trump said, opening the chat from what looked like a home office, with McEnany sitting in her home in front of a strategically placed “Keep America Great” sign and hat, and Carr in front of red, white, and blue “Trump–Pence” placards. “Since we can’t go to you, we thought you could come to us,” she said.
She lobbed some questions at her guests — if they had any advice for parents in this time of self-isolation, how the president planned to stimulate the economy. There were digs at House leader Nancy Pelosi and of Democrats’ handling of the economic stimulus package — nothing anyone who has tuned into Fox or Twitter hadn’t heard before.
Then Lara Trump turned to the subject of Biden and asked, “What would this country look like if Joe Biden and the Democrats had been at the helm?” That’s when McEnany froze. Not figuratively, but literally, her frozen head soon morphed into a question mark and the sound for the feed dropped entirely. The campaign that had so loudly criticized Biden for his own technical hiccups had fumbled itself. Digital campaigning isn’t always easy.
The next day, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said more than 945,000 people had tuned in to various platforms to watch the event. But, at least on Periscope, the number did not go above 650.
“While nothing can compete with President Trump’s unmatched ability to communicate directly with the American people, these events offer an important supplement to the president’s daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings — and the incredible response we’ve gotten from supporters proves it,” Lara Trump wrote in an op-ed published on Fox News on Wednesday.
In his interviews and digital events, Biden has consistently strived for political nuance, something that may help in projecting himself as a steady hand, but that also rarely generates headlines. That’s been especially true in how he’s taken on Trump directly.
In a CNN interview this Tuesday, Biden was asked if Trump “is responsible for the deaths of Americans” for his response to the pandemic. He pivoted.
“President Trump is not responsible for the coronavirus,” he said. Instead, Biden said, he is “responsible for using all of the power at his disposal to be able to deal with this virus,” like using the Defense Production Act to bring more protective supplies to doctors and nurses.
“If you’ve noticed what I’ve been doing I have not been criticizing the president but I’ve been pointing out where there’s disagreements on how to proceed,” Biden said on The View last week.
During a later MSNBC interview, Biden went further in his criticism of Trump and seemed to regret it.
“Why doesn’t he just act like a president?” Biden asked.
“That’s a stupid way to say it,” he said after a pause. “Sorry.”