A strange campaign season where quiet commands the polls
(CN) — When will Joe Biden emerge from his basement?
This burning question animated much of the country’s punditry just a couple of weeks ago.
Now the question usually runs, should he?
The question has morphed largely due to Biden’s recent success in the polls, where he has extended a sizable lead during a time when his opponent, President Donald Trump, has parlayed the bully pulpit of the White House into considerably more public appearance and press coverage.
A chorus of voices in Democratic circles is beginning to advocate for Biden to continue his low-key approach to campaigning as evidenced by former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s recent comments.
“He’s fine in the basement,” McAuliffe said. “Two people see him a day: his two body people. That’s it. Let Trump keep doing what Trump’s doing.”
Biden did wander out of his basement this past week, making an appearance in Darby, Pennsylvania where he talked to small business owners about their challenges amid the Covid-19 pandemic while detailing his vision for America’s economic recovery.
But as is the case for most of the past few months, networks mostly declined to carry his speech and his appearance went generally unremarked upon in the broader political sphere.
“It’s hard for the vice president to break through,” McAuliffe said. “You’ve got the Covid crisis. He’s not a governor, doesn’t have the National Guard. He’s not the president, doesn’t have the briefing room.”
But it also underscores how Biden is hampered from conducting a traditional campaign, where he makes public appearances in various communities, at least attracting the attention of the local press or regional outlets with national followings.
“No one should be campaigning traditionally right now,” said Irwin Redlener, a public health expert with Columbia University. “This sets up a presidential election season unlike any other in history.”
However, Trump is poised to try a more traditional approach.
He is slated to host his first in-person rally since early March before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down much of the United States. Some pundits detect a whiff of desperation in Trump’s need to get back to his rallies, as his descent in the polls has accelerated during a time when he hasn’t been able to use his preferred method to communicate with his followers.
“He tried to use his brash communication style in the daily coronavirus briefings, but that didn’t go well,” said Mitchell McKinney, an expert on political communication with the University of Missouri. “Trump is just not in control of the narrative right now and he likes to be in control and so he is trying to get out to his rallies to set the agenda a little bit.”
Even Trump’s critics concede he has been exceedingly adroit at steering media coverage, but that magic touch has at least temporarily abandoned him with the dual crises of Covid-19 and the civil unrest surrounding racial equity in American in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Trump’s campaign also tacitly acknowledged that Biden’s choice to keep a low profile might be a good one for the time being, as they issued a statement calling for more press coverage of their opponent.
“It is now established that Joe Biden prefers campaigning from the comfort of his basement in Wilmington, Delaware instead of traveling the country meeting voters and making the case for his candidacy,” a Trump campaign spokesperson said. “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.”
The campaign called for more media coverage of Biden so the American people can more fully vet a presidential candidate.
McKinney said the Trump campaign is right about the tactics of the Biden campaign at present.
“Joe Biden’s in a situation right now where his opponent seems to be doing enough damage to himself that he doesn’t want to get in the way,” McKinney said.
The professor acknowledges that Biden may just want to stay out of the way until November, but further acknowledged such a strategy has a short shelf life.
“There will be some kind of convention,” McKinney said. “Biden will also roll out his VP pick.”
Both events will come with a lot of fanfare, although, both experts said Trump could recapture some momentum if he is more willing and able to have in-person campaign events that demonstrate enthusiasm behind his reelection campaign.
“If Trump is out there exciting his base with rallies and with a convention and Biden doesn’t do that, it disadvantages Biden,” Redlener said.
McKinney agrees, saying that a traditional convention bounce will still likely be an important factor as the race likely tightens down the final stretch.
“It would be a stark juxtaposition, should the RNC host a convention with rowdy cheering enthusiasm and the Democrats have a subdued somber affair,” McKinney said.
But Redlener said there is also a chance for the GOP’s insistence on in-person events to backfire.
“If a lot of people get sick because of these rallies, it could make Trump look stupid and anti-science,” Redlener said.
This scenario is certainly possible come Saturday.
The Trump campaign is planning to pack 20,000 people inside an arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma despite objections from local officials that the rally could act as a “superspreader event.”
Tulsa County, where the city of Tulsa is located, recorded its highest-ever single day tally for new coronavirus cases this past week and several states show accelerations of outbreaks.
Trump has argued that such criticism amounts to “Covid shaming” and conservatives, in general, have pointed to a double standard in the way that the media covers Trump rallies and protests over shelter-in-place orders versus coverage of recent protests over the killing of George Floyd, which featured thousands of people in close proximity.
Should the rally go off without causing a noticeable spike in cases in the area, Trump will likely ramp up his preferred communication style throughout the country, leaving Biden to counter.
“The DNC is going to have to decide how they are going to counter that,” McKinney said. “They are going to have to do something to command the attention of the American public.”
But until then, Biden will likely play it safe from the friendly confines of his basement.