Biden clearly agreed that some version of this analysis was accurate: He replaced his campaign manager on March 12, after a string of victories made it clear he would be the nominee. Jen O’Malley Dillon, the new manager, started at the time the pandemic exploded and the campaign became virtual.
“You’ve got a new campaign manager who’s got to socialize with the existing team and she has to do that remotely,” said John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “That’s challenging.”
The Biden campaign has not quite figured out what will replace the traditional set piece events of a presidential campaign. For now, in the teeth of the crisis, when attention is necessarily focused on the people in charge, Biden has two big problems.
The first is how can he actually do any events outside of his basement that will get attention and coverage? The second is what can he say about Trump now? This is a new problem for Democrats. Ever since he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to announce his campaign, there has been absolutely no hesitation by any Democrat to attack Trump. Sometimes in the primaries this year candidates would make a point of emphasizing that they were more interested in explaining their policies rather than ripping into the president. But that’s only because there was a shared understanding between voters and Democratic candidates that Trump was irredeemable in every way.
Now, for the first time, some Democrats are wondering whether there could be a cost to pillorying the president.
“Biden has a thin line,” the outside adviser to Biden said. “As much as I dislike Trump and think what a bad job he’s doing, there’s a danger now that attacking him can backfire on you if you get too far out there. I don’t think the public wants to hear criticism of Trump right now.”
Then there’s the issue of Biden being denied one of his political strengths. Biden thrives on personal connection; the pandemic has robbed him of the ability to meet with actual people. In a recent interview with CNN, he recalled the pain of missing human contact. He can’t even be close to his deceased son Beau’s kids.
“Every day, they walk over through the woods and through a neighborhood, and they sit out in the backyard, and we sit in the porch. And I bribe them with ice cream. But we talk about the day, and we hang out,” Biden told Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “But I’m not able to go down and hug them and kiss them, which I usually do. I’m just following the instructions that — and anybody who walks into the house from the Secret Service on, they’re wearing masks and gloves.”
His campaign is thinking a lot about how to foster the human connection he thrives on under the new rules of social distancing.
“We’re thinking through what does a virtual campaign look like, and how do we ensure that Biden is able to have that one-on-one connection that he is able to form with voters when he’s out in the real world,” said Bedingfield. “How do we create that online? We’re experimenting with a lot of different formats on that front.”
Next up, launching on Monday, is a regular podcast that Biden will host with a one-on-one conversation format.
Biden stumbled to victory with a nearly broke campaign. The string of Tuesday night primary wins — with all the accompanying news coverage — created a surge of new donations. But then the pandemic pushed the campaign aside and the economy came crashing down. Those twin developments have many Democrats concerned that Biden’s fundraising has dramatically stalled.
The Biden campaign acknowledged it was a serious concern.
“We are preparing for and thinking through how we execute the campaign knowing that it’s very possible that fundraising across the board, and not just for our campaign, it’s just gonna be leaner than it might have been a few months ago,” said a Biden adviser. “And I think that’s the reality that all campaigns are facing.” (On the flip side, major expenses like candidate travel and events have disappeared.)
But there are other Democrats who think all of the hand-wringing over Biden’s bizarre situation and the complexities and political downside of creating a virtual campaign are overblown. In their view, he can defeat Trump in a general election the same way he has almost won the Democratic nomination: just by being there.
“In the long run, it will work out for them,” said one prominent Democrat. “I don’t relish talking about this in political terms, but global leaders are moving up 25 points in the midst of this crisis. The prime minister of Italy has a 75 percent approval rating. In France, [President Emmanuel] Macron has moved above 50 percent. As you remember George Bush was at 90 percent after 9/11.”
The point, of course, was that Trump has not seen the traditional ratings surge that presidents nearly always receive in the midst of a national crisis.
“He actually did things that made this much worse or didn’t do things that made it worse,” the Democrat said, “and it’s all on video.”
But Dunn was frank about how uncertain the politics of the pandemic now are. “Anyone who tells you, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve been through this before!’” she said, “I want to know when and where.”