To win, he has to find a way to get beyond the basement tapes and project himself into our ever more digital world.
by David Axelrod and David Plouffe
Joe Biden’s most memorable moments on the campaign trail have come through spontaneous, intensely moving encounters with people who, like Mr. Biden, have endured searing struggle and loss. His authentic sense of empathy is a quality uniquely suited to this agonizing moment.
Now Mr. Biden is mired in his basement, speaking to us remotely, like an astronaut beaming back to earth from the International Space Station.
The former vice president is a man of vast experience in government. He ran the Recovery Act for President Obama in 2009 during the economic crash and was Mr. Obama’s active partner during other crises like the H1N1 pandemic that same year and the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Yet in the midst of a catastrophic virus and devastating economic coma that command our full attention, Mr. Biden finds himself on the outside looking in. Governors and mayors have taken center stage in the only story that matters.
And while President’s Trump’s well-watched White House briefings have been, for him, a decidedly mixed bag, video of the president in action has been a striking contrast to the image of his solitary challenger, consigned to his basement.
Whether the president’s rollicking open-mic nights endure and actually help him is highly questionable. The percentage of Americans who trust what he is saying about the crisis is dismally low and falling. Mr. Trump has consistently trailed Mr. Biden in public polling and the president’s fate may well be inexorably tied to perceptions of his handling of the crisis and the path the virus and the economy take from here.
But that’s an assumption the Biden campaign can ill afford to make.
As with every other facet of our lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed how the presidential race will be run. Every aspect of campaigning must be rethought, from how you present yourself and reach and organize voters to how you stage a national convention in a time when large public gatherings are proscribed.
Adjusting to the new political realities is imperative for Mr. Biden, who ran his first campaign for office a half-century ago. In order to break through and be heard, he will have to up the tempo of his campaign, fully utilize his army of powerful surrogates and embrace a new suite of virtual, data-driven tools and creative tactics.
Online speeches from his basement won’t cut it. Written pronouncements on this issue or that may have won attention during his many years in office, but will get little pickup now. Broadcast interviews are fine, but most valuable only if they generate a great and memorable line that becomes a widely shared and consumed video moment.
For Mr. Biden, the challenge is to transform a campaign that lagged behind many of his Democratic competitors during the primary in its use of digital media and timely, state-of-the-art communications techniques. While television remains a potent force, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are all essential in a Covid-19 world in which candidate travel and voter contact will be severely limited. In many respects, they are the campaign, not an important part of it.
As much as Mr. Trump personally revels in television exposure, his campaign has been digital first from the start. Team Trump knows where and how voters get their information and tests a tremendous amount of content to find the winning material their targets will consume and share. Mr. Trump’s surrogates are a relentless presence on social media and his massive digital following dwarfs Mr. Biden’s by a factor of 15 to one.
So what should the Biden campaign do? Here are some suggestions.
Act like an insurgent, not an incumbent.
You don’t defeat an incumbent president by playing defense. Every day, Mr. Trump provides opportunities. It isn’t hard to get a rise out of this thin-skinned president and knock him off his game. Be a speedboat, not a battleship. Make him react to you.
For better or worse, the first Twitter president is a master at using social media to frame the daily debate and news coverage. Mr. Trump’s flair for the outrageous helps drive that attention. In contrast, Mr. Biden’s temperance and decorum are relative strengths. But civility isn’t particularly well-suited to social media.
Still, with creative and timely interventions, Mr. Biden can turn the tables on Mr. Trump. To do this, the challenger needs to behave more like an insurgent, building the capacity to wield facts, humor and mockery at lightning speed in those surreal moments of opportunity that Mr. Trump regularly provides. (Simple example: a Biden video, fired off in real time: “This is a cup of Lysol. It is poison. Please do not drink it.”)
Prepare for an onslaught.
The numbers don’t lie. Mr. Trump, who lost the popular vote by three million in 2016, is the only president in history to go an entire first term without cracking 50 percent approval. Even in those battleground states he narrowly won to capture the presidency, his numbers have lagged. Now the virus has raised glaring questions about his erratic handling of an epochal crisis and wrecked the robust economy he was counting on as the linchpin of his re-election strategy.
Mr. Trump’s team knows they can’t win a referendum on his leadership, so they will try to disqualify Mr. Biden. That process has already begun with an extensive campaign, led by the president, regularly questioning the mental acuity and physical stamina of the man he has branded “Sleepy Joe.” The Trump campaign and its surrogates are relentlessly pushing this and other scurrilous attacks online.
Negative online memes are toxic and, unanswered, will rapidly spread. The current furor over allegations of sexual assault against Mr. Biden by a former staffer, Tara Reade, is an example of how far negative stories can travel in the absence of a quick, decisive response. The Biden campaign will need a more robust rapid response operation to monitor and counter Mr. Trump’s attacks and arm his millions of supporters with the material they need to push back.
Expand your digital footprint.
It will be hard in six months to reach social media parity with Mr. Trump. But Mr. Biden can rapidly expand his reach with a little help from his friends. In a recent blog post, Steve Rosenthal, a veteran Democratic organizer, suggested that the biggest social media stars in Mr. Biden’s stable — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others — should commit two days a week to sharing Mr. Biden’s posts on their own channels on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. This would instantly and exponentially multiply Mr. Biden’s reach.
Focus on content.
Of course, it is not enough to appear in social media if the content does not attract interest and promote sharing. So activate a virtual content production studio and establish a unique content calendar for each major social media platform. The creative community heavily leans progressive and is rife with world-class talent who want to help. With many idled by Covid-19, they have plenty of time to contribute. Enlist them and dedicate the resources to relentless, platform-specific production.
For content to be effective, Mr. Biden doesn’t always have to be the star and he shouldn’t have to carry the load. Utilize the army of well-known and well-liked surrogates at his disposal to help deliver digital messages on the campaign’s behalf. This will require a substantial operation, working closely with other elected officials. content creators and the campaign’s communications shop. But it’s worth the investment. “Biden in the Basement” is not a strong enough show to hold the audience.
Plan for a virtual convention.
Party conventions are largely an anachronism in an era when voters select the candidate long before the delegates gather. The main purpose of these conclaves in the modern era has been to give the parties a chance to introduce the nominee and the main themes of the fall campaign to a large television audience. So if Covid-19 prevents crowds from gathering, focus instead on producing great content that can stream live during those days, including the essential, prime-time hours the networks generally cover.
The recent “One World: Together at Home” event to support global efforts to combat Covid-19 was a good example of entertaining, impactful virtual programming and a fine template. The event, which drew a huge audience, streamed online for eight hours, with the last two broadcast live on many of the major networks. Such a production will mean, blessedly, fewer and shorter speeches, more music and video, and could prove vastly more engrossing than the traditional convention.
Organize, organize, organize. (But digitally.)
In the Obama campaigns that we ran, we worked to marry the new technologies — data analytics, text messaging and social media — to the time-honored task of identifying, registering and mobilizing voters. We asked our supporters to share content and treated them as ambassadors for the cause, persuading and mobilizing their trusted friends online. This augmented the work we could do at crowd events and the millions of doors on which our paid staff and volunteers knocked.
There will be little traditional door-knocking in the age of Covid-19. But, sadly, many people are idled and have more time. There are millions of Americans who will share content, write postcards and make phone calls if they are asked.
The campaign can start simply — recruiting people to engage in relational organizing; encouraging them to reach out to everyone in their circle; to find supporters, identify those who may want to volunteer, discover a cousin or friend who is truly undecided about their vote and explore why.
They then can start farming out lists of people who need encouragement to register to vote, or who might be swing voters, flirting with skipping the election or voting for a third party in states like Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Florida. People at home can call, converse online, write postcards. This is an urgent need, as Mr. Trump is far ahead of Mr. Biden organizationally in the battleground states.
Even in normal times, you have to put every point on the board you can, every day, to win the presidency. And these are not normal times. We are a deeply polarized country. Even in the crisis, Mr. Trump’s base of support has proved durable and Mr. Biden’s margins in key battleground states are thin.
In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has taken impressive steps to enhance and broaden his team for the general election. And if, in the end, the limitations imposed by Covid-19 compel Mr. Biden and his campaign to pick up the pace and modernize their operations, the changes the virus will have forced on them may just wind up giving the Man in the Basement the decisive edge.
David Axelrod (@DavidAxelrod), a former senior strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, is the director of the nonpartisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago; David Plouffe (@DavidPlouffe) was the campaign manager for Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign and is the author of “A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump.”