A year later, the Acela isn’t running. Much of Amtrak’s ordinary service isn’t, either. Gianni’s is open only for takeout. And Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, spends his days mostly inside his home.
“Here we are, doing a virtual campaign, which has never been done before,” said South Carolina state Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D), a longtime friend of Biden’s who pushed him to enter the race. Harpootlian said he’s been hosting fundraisers, knocking on doors and attending rallies for presidential candidates for decades.
“Those are the mechanisms that I’m used to, that I grew up with, if you will,” he said. “And many of those mechanisms are out the window.”
To mark the anniversary of his campaign, Biden can’t celebrate with a rally. His team can’t open new offices and collect names and addresses of supporters.
Instead, staffers learned to sew masks for distribution to those who need them most. That work is part of an effort to focus on the front-line health-care workers and first responders who have put themselves in danger as the novel coronavirus has ravaged the country.
Biden’s advance team made calls to thank nurses and first responders. And some called to check on their contacts in communities — not asking for their votes but inquiring whether they needed help.
Biden also has been making calls to first responders. On Friday, he held a 30-minute Zoom call with a nurse in Wisconsin. When the call ended, Biden decided to call her family too.
Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said Biden’s message hasn’t changed. “One year ago, Vice President Biden said we are in a battle for the soul of America,” she said. “As we watch Donald Trump consistently put his own politics first amidst a global pandemic and an economic crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in a generation, that’s even truer today.”
But nearly everything else has changed.
Take fundraising. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who hosted Biden’s first fundraising event as a presidential candidate last year, recalled a room that was packed with donors. Now Biden hosts Zoom calls — and the vibe is a little different. One potential donor called in to a recent event from his treadmill.
When Biden entered the presidential race, the field was crowded — and competitive. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was raising millions from grass-roots donors. The campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was on the rise. Pete Buttigieg was still the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and beginning to register in the polls. He went on to win the Iowa caucuses.
Now they’re — mostly — singing new tunes.
“A year ago, Joe Biden announced his campaign based on a belief that we’re in a battle for the soul of the nation,” Buttigieg said in a video he posted to Twitter on Saturday to support Biden’s efforts. “I don’t have to tell you that a lot has changed since then.”
“I’m joining @JoeBiden and thanking our essential workers,” wrote Warren in a social media post, adding her voice to chorus of defeated rivals following the campaign’s lead.
Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), along with former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, also posted supportive #SoulSaturday messages for Biden.
Some dynamics do not shift so quickly. Though Sanders has endorsed Biden, he did not take to Twitter to celebrate the anniversary until Saturday evening, after a Washington Post reporter asked about the omission.
Biden’s allies say the biggest difference between now and a year ago is the importance of the election.
“The world’s changed,” said Harpootlian. “Campaigns have changed. This campaign has changed. But the stakes could have never been higher. We wanted to win a year ago. But there is a scenario, a year ago, where, maybe we don’t pull it off. But the stakes have become so much higher now that that is not an option.”
But they acknowledge that the new normal hides Biden’s strength as a retail campaigner.
“I think that hampers a guy like Joe Biden, who look, he’s best one-on-one,” Harpootlian said. “He’s best speaking to a crowd of 10,000. He’s best letting people feel that honesty and sincerity. It’s hard to do that on a Zoom call.”
But, Harpootlian noted: The field is level. President Trump too must forgo his famous rallies.
“It’s a detriment to both him and Trump,” said Rendell.
Biden, he said, gets his energy from being with people. Zoom meetings can come close to replicating that feel — but not entirely, he said.
“It’s not the same,” said Rendell. “It’s not the same for someone who has got tremendous personal warmth, which Biden has.”
And when Biden launched a year ago, The Washington Post’s newsroom was chock-full of people. When this reporter stopped in Saturday to pick up supplies at her desk, she stood in a room that was completely empty.