Presidential candidates rarely actively campaigned in the 19th century. The lack of a national railroad system made travel too arduous for candidates before 1850. Even after that, it took days for trains to travel between major cities, and the lack of any means of mass communication besides partisan newspapers meant any candidates would exhaust themselves for little to no impact. Many aspiring presidents therefore did what made sense: They stayed at home and let the crowds come to them.
Republican campaigns were the experts at staging these efforts. They would treat each day the way modern consultants do, selecting a largely favorable audience and designing a speech to make a point relevant to the audience. Workers would hear about tariffs while black voters would hear about emancipation. Reporters would camp out at the candidate’s house, transcribe the words, take the photos and send their missives to their local papers via telegraph. Much like a rally or photo op today, front-porch campaigners could reach the entire nation with a targeted, clear message.
This method reached its apex in the 1896 election. Fiery populist William Jennings Bryan, a 36-year-old former Democratic member of Congress from Nebraska, had unexpectedly captured his party’s nomination with his immortal “Cross of Gold” speech at the convention. He then launched into a then-unprecedented national barnstorming campaign, speaking to millions of people in hundreds of cities. The Republican nominee, William McKinley, stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, as his well-financed campaign brought the voters to him. McKinley won the largest share of the popular vote of any candidate since 1872 and trounced Bryan by a 271-to-176 margin in the electoral college.
Biden’s campaign has unwittingly become an homage to the McKinley model. Biden rarely ventures from his basement, instead speaking to supporters via carefully curated events on social media or elsewhere on the Internet. He delivers a message designed to resonate with that group’s priorities and takes softball questions from his fans. He has occasionally taken questions from the broader media or subjected himself to tough interviews, but he has mainly stayed out of the limelight and let attention focus on the populist pugilist in the White House.
This “less is more” approach has been spectacularly successful. Biden led President Trump by 6.3 points on March 11, the day after he effectively clinched the nomination by beating Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in five of six states. Today, Biden leads by 8.7 points; why should he abandon something that’s worked so well?
Trump will try to lure Biden out of the basement by running a modern version of Bryan’s campaign. He’ll crisscross the country by plane, speaking wherever he can muster the large crowds that energize and fuel him. He might prefer the large indoor rallies where he can deliver his trademark, semi-spontaneous remarks, but he might be better served by more outdoor events like last Friday’s at Mount Rushmore, which feature scripted speeches with little improvisation. He won’t lack for locations if he chooses to run as a defender of U.S. history: Imagine presidential addresses at Fort Sumter, Valley Forge and a plethora of other hallowed sites. He’ll probably draw large crowds from people bored from sitting at home and Republicans frustrated with the woke mob’s desecration of American idols.
None of that will sway Biden, however, unless his share of the vote starts to drop in the polls. Biden has been at or above 48 percent in the polls almost all year, a level Hillary Clinton really only broke for a substantial amount of time during a six-week period in late March and April 2016 as Trump battled to clinch the GOP nod. Trump can close the gap with Biden by rallying some soft supporters back to his camp, but if Biden stays above 48 percent, his staff will justifiably feel they have the upper hand. There’s no reason to risk their aged candidate’s health or increase the risk of damaging gaffes by falling for Trump’s bait.
Democrats once urged their man to “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” Today they’ll shout with equal vigor, “Stay at home, Joe!” Expect him to gratefully take their advice.
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