Biden has gone from no campaigning to faux campaigning. Over the last two weeks, America has gotten a good look at the Biden campaign’s strategy and tactics for the race’s homestretch. They intend to focus primarily on race, while minimizing direct exposure and maximizing their indirect exposure through advertising.
President Trump’s law-and-order offensive and polling rebound explain why Biden is abandoning his virtual campaign for at least a vestigial one.
On September 4, Rasmussen’s job approval daily tracking poll showed Trump with a 52 percent approval rating. This matched his 2020 high, last hit on February 27, following his Senate impeachment trial acquittal and before coronavirus lockdowns. It is also 4 percentage points better than Obama had on the same date in 2012. With Biden’s poll leads already shrinking, Rasmussen’s results showed Trump could have further upside too.
Forced to emerge, Biden intends to deviate as little as possible from isolation — he will go from his bubble to bubble-wrap.
Biden’s campaign had gone on Spring Break and never returned. In an August 31 piece, the New York Times delicately explained that “the coronavirus shuttered the campaign trail in March” to describe Biden’s public absence. The reality is that as soon as Biden had secured the nomination, he ceased making public appearances to avoid the gaffes that had plagued him at rallies and with the press.
The tightening race has produced increasing Democrat anxiety. As the New York Times again reported, “Some Democrats worry that Mr. Biden has not been public enough in laying out his own views. Concerned allies have been on the phone with Mr. Biden’s team in recent days urging him to get out more.” And by “more,” they meant “some.”
So last week the Biden camp unveiled a different approach from that of the last six months. To counter President Trump’s momentum from his law-and-order attacks, Biden made speeches, attended a listening session, met the press, and unleashed his biggest ad buy.
For his first speech, Biden traveled to Pittsburgh. He needed to distance himself from the riots while staying close to supporters sympathetic to the protests where riots have erupted. Like his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, no actual audience attended, only media members.
Also following his acceptance speech script, Biden focused on what he had labeled the third of “four historic crises” — “the most compelling call for racial justice since the ’60s.” In Pittsburgh, Biden immediately blamed Trump for the violence: “He’s stoking violence in our cities.”
Next in calling out violence, Biden identified “Violence we’ve seen again and again and again, of unwarranted police shooting, excessive force, seven bullets in the back of Jacob Blake, knee on the neck of George Floyd, killing of Breonna Taylor in her own apartment, violence of extremists and opportunists and right-wing militias.” Notably absent in his lineup of provocateurs — either here or anywhere else in his speech — were those on the left.
Only after Biden had gone through his list of violence’s causes did he issue his much-reported condemnation of the “violence of looting and burning and destruction of public property,” which he mentioned without any attribution.
Biden then left the speech without taking any questions from “the press in front of me.” As the Washington Examiner noted, Biden “has not taken questions in a news conference in at least a month.” Biden would snap that streak on Friday, September 4.
Critics would argue that Biden’s Friday appearance before the media hardly constituted a “press conference.” The whole affair lasted just 44 minutes, and there were no questions during the first 21 minutes as Biden spoke uninterrupted. Biden only took questions during the latter half, and the only question he had to field on his own conduct, plans, or policies was, “Do you know when you will have another COVID test?” With the exception of one about his running mate’s lack of public appearances, every other question dealt with his reactions to President Trump.
Between these two events, Biden’s campaign unveiled a massive ad campaign addressing what the New York Times described as “condemning the rioters and looters that have vexed some American cities.” Biden’s media purchase will be a “$45 million one-week television and digital advertising campaign that is his largest to date.” Targeting battleground states, the Times notes this advertising “is bigger than Mr. Biden’s paid-media budget during the entirety of the 2020 primaries.”
Biden also went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week. There he met with community residents about the racial tensions following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The visit’s focal event was a sparsely attended listening session with community residents at a local church.
His Kenosha visit marked Biden’s first trip out of either Delaware or Pennsylvania since March. The highlighted listening session lasted just over one hour. The press followed his stops, but Biden did not take any questions.
This week, Biden went to Michigan to give a speech on American manufacturing. Again, there was no live audience, only the press. Again, the appearance was short, lasting just half an hour. Again, he took no press questions.
Over two weeks, America has received a preview of Biden’s remaining campaign. Forced to emerge, he intends to deviate as little as possible from isolation — Biden will go from his bubble to bubble-wrap. He will adhere to his acceptance speech’s focus of blaming Trump for “four historic crises” — focusing primarily on race, as three of his campaign’s four message opportunities did.
Biden’s tactics too will shift only slightly. In Pittsburgh and Michigan — as with his acceptance speech — Biden chose to avoid an audience. In Kenosha’s listening session, the audience was extremely small. In all three, he did not answer press questions.
When he did take press questions in the one event, they were the friendliest imaginable — to the point of being remedial. In place of live give-and-take, he chose a massive ad buy.
At each juncture, his campaign arranged the most controlled environment possible. Each offered almost no unplanned distractions to throw Biden off-message.
Biden continues to choose a campaign without campaigning. He intends to stay insulated until pushed to engage; then, when he must engage, he will do so only to the limit pressure requires.
Of course, even in this intentionally “risk-less approach,” risk exists. Biden is ceding the race’s initiative to Trump. The president may choose an issue to which Biden cannot favorably compete — as has occurred with Trump’s law and order attack.
There is also the risk that America will not welcome such a low-key campaign, that ads cannot counter the higher energy of live events.
Biden is gambling that current circumstances — political and health-related alike — allow him to successfully eschew a modern presidential campaign. He is betting the White House that a faux campaign can replace a fall campaign.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.