They must get good at being authentic and engaging from their sofa, which is not as easy as all those Instagram influencers and YouTube stars make it seem. Live-streaming from your house is not the same thing as settling into a prime block on cable news where the professionals make sure your microphone is working, the lighting is flattering and you don’t look like you just wandered in from a crypt. And while the TV time constraints may be frustrating, they also have the benefit of forcing guests to stay out of the weeds and get to their point.
Live-streaming from home is more intimate, informal and revealing. It’s also more perilous.
Sanders and Biden are not the same kind of terrible. Each has his own unique hurdles to overcome. In the beginning, Biden struggled with the technology itself, his natural desire to emote and connect stymied by audio foul-ups and general confusion about who can hear him and who can’t. But he also seemed to want to get better by learning from his missteps. He has.
Some might recall his first attempt at a virtual town hall in mid-March. It was, as countless critics noted, a mess. Indeed, a subgenre of YouTube programming dedicated itself to parsing the many ways in which his Facebook-Live-meets-Zoom gathering went awry. The audio stalled. Questioners gave up and dropped out. Biden went all mush-mouthed as his eyes darted from the camera to the social-distancing human directing the glitch-fest.
Biden was suited up for the event and standing behind a makeshift lectern with a campaign placard attached to it — in what appeared to be his living room or den. For a candidate who prides himself on making intimate connections with voters, the presentation was one long conflicting message. Was this a formal presidential-ish address or a regular Joe sit-down?
Last week, however, Biden received a gift. CNN hosted him in a virtual town hall. Technically, it went off without a hitch. He was still at home, still wearing a suit, but the set had improved. There was no lectern. He had good posture. He was reasonably well-lit.
Allowed to speak for an extended period, without a debate buzzer going off after 30 seconds, Biden was focused and amiable. Anyone frustrated by politicians’ refusal to give a simple yes or no answer would have been heartened. When host Anderson Cooper asked Biden whether he’d support some of the recommendations made by Bill Gates in fighting this and future pandemics, Biden simply said, “Yes.”
He didn’t quite realize that the folks asking questions had submitted them earlier and weren’t hanging around on the line — as if they’d called into their local radio station. Long time listener. First time caller. I’ll take my answer off-air. But he made eye contact. He got personal talking about his grandchildren. Biden’s getting better. He’s learning how to make this newfangled form of campaigning work.
Perhaps Sanders knows just how unpleasant his live coronavirus roundtables are. He probably does. He just doesn’t care because Sanders has never been concerned with making hard medicine go down easier. He is here to bring you the facts. He’s broadcasting from home in Vermont. But he’s still yelling.
His roundtables are wholly on brand. His campaign regularly streamed his public appearances on Facebook and elsewhere. He prided himself on hijacking the media for his own purposes. But in this devastating moment, his brand has never been more glaringly lacking in warmth. He hosted a Friday evening roundtable in which he was slouched over a desk in a blood-red room with horror movie lighting from a glowing table lamp with its shade askew. He shuffled papers on his desk. He got into the footnotes of the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill. He looked down and around but rarely held eye contact with the viewer. He wore his at-home uniform: an open-collared shirt and blazer. He looked like neither a statesman nor a consoler.
Sanders introduced musicians and medical professionals like an irascible professor moderating a cable access show (which, indeed, Sanders once did). He was broadcasting facts but not actionable information, reassurance or enlightening news.
Sanders sat in front of a dark wooden chest of drawers lined with photographs. Were they personal pictures? Who could tell? Does the average voter know what anyone in his family looks like aside from his wife, Jane? Instead of adding an air of familiarity, the photos came across as mere decorative objects.
He tangled with a few audio glitches. One of his guests, Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United, which supports Medicare-for-all, was so dramatically backlit that she looked as though she was dialing in from a witness protection program. Sanders peppered his comments with “furthermore,” which is a word that shouldn’t be used in formal writing let alone casual conversation.
Another roundtable on Monday was more like a conference call when multiple panelists appeared solely via audio.
This new form of campaigning is hard. But it’s even more challenging and frustrating for voters. They can’t buttonhole a politician at an event and demand answers to their specific concerns; they can’t protest at a rally. They can’t look these men — ah, yes, only men — in the eye and see how they bear up.
But if the candidates fully embrace live-streamed conversations, they can potentially reveal the best of themselves. In a room without moderators or time keepers, without commercial interruptions, what can they communicate at a time when there’s an urgent need for leaders who speak in a way that is informed, decisive, honest and empathetic?
The candidates are at home. Every virtual event is an invitation to stop in and stay for a bit. Make folks glad they came.
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