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Campaigning in the age of pandemic: Biden and Sanders as amateur video hosts

Former vice president Joe Biden is now set up with an in-home studio for campaigning amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Joe Biden has chaired powerful Senate committees, negotiated with foreign leaders as vice president and is the likely Democratic presidential nominee. Bernie Sanders ran the largest city in Vermont, has represented his state in Washington for nearly three decades and leads the country’s liberal movement.

Now the two competitors are contorting themselves into far more humble roles: Biden is hosting a podcast from his Wilmington, Del., home, while Sanders is emceeing a live-streamed talk show from the first floor of his house in Burlington, Vt.

Welcome to campaigning in the age of pandemic. For Americans accustomed to candidates delivering lofty speeches before crowds of thousands or embracing voters in emotional moments, this new era of campaigning is yet another example of traditions upended and expectations disrupted.

Yet, it is what campaigning will look like for some time to come, as candidates who spent years honing a sense of spectacle and rhetoric are reduced to amateur-style programs in their homes. Without studios or large event staffs, the programs do not so much resemble political events as they do, at best, local-access cable shows.

“Why am I doing this?” Biden, 77, asked at the start of the first episode of his new weekly podcast entitled, “Here’s the Deal.”

“Well, first, so we can keep talking with each other,” he answered himself. “We can’t hold rallies anymore. We’re not gathering in large public spaces. We’re living in the new normal. But I want you to know that I’m with you. I’m on your side. We’re going to get through this together as a country.”

The Post’s Jaqueline Alemany explains how presidential campaigns trail are turning to new digital tools as coronavirus halts voter interactions. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

At another point, with a mixture of melancholy and optimism, Biden reflected on the dramatic shift from having large crowds for one of the first times in his campaign to suddenly being at home, largely alone aside from his wife, dog, and newly assigned Secret Service agents wearing masks and gloves.

“We aren’t hosting any large events,” he said. “Matter of fact, I am not really hosting any events or rallies that, as we have been. I’m staying home in Delaware.”

Sanders’s campaign had live-streamed about 350 events before the virus hit, so his staff was more used to the technology than Biden’s. But doing it from his home as the sole type of campaigning is new.

“We are in an unprecedented moment in American and world history,” said Sanders, 78, sitting next to a wood-burning stove in his Burlington home for a fireside chat earlier this month. “I have never seen anything like this in my life. And nor has anybody else out there.”

On Monday, at the top of a “Livestream on Coronavirus Pandemic,” Sanders introduced three guests and then turned to grim news that served as a reminder of why he was limited to such campaigning: Michigan State Rep. Isaac Robinson, who chaired Sanders’s operation for the state, died Sunday.

“He got ill the other day, had a hard time breathing, went into the hospital, and a few hours later he was dead from coronavirus,” Sanders said with his characteristic bluntness.

The new style of campaigning comes as the contest is in a state of suspended animation. Without primaries, debates or crowds, it is difficult to gauge momentum or trajectory. While President Trump and assorted governors attract the spotlight, the two Democratic contenders are relegated to the sidelines, and their online shows are hardly big draws.

But they have no alternative. As they have adjusted, both candidates have had to contend with technical glitches. Biden’s first virtual town hall in this era was beset with problems, including faulty audio and video difficulties; he at one point walked off camera. Subsequent events have gone more smoothly, with a professional television studio in his basement and aides trying to get him on cable television about once a day.

Biden’s favorite part of campaigning is connecting with voters in person, according to a senior adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer insights about the inner workings of the campaign. Since that is impossible right now, the adviser said, a new in-home studio lets Biden “address voters one on one in virtual town halls, including with first responders and with young people, which has made a big difference and which you’ll see more of.”

Sanders has also faced glitches. On Monday night, as guest Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) was speaking, Sanders coughed a few times, causing the voice-activated camera shot to leave DeFazio in Oregon and switch abruptly to Sanders in Vermont.

And Sanders initially seemed to forget about a musical interlude, introducing one of his guests before stopping.

“Reverend Barber, thanks so much for being with us,” Sanders said, referring to the Rev. William J. Barber II, the famed advocate for the poor.

Then he paused and said, “Oh,” adding, “Before Reverend Barber is with us, we do have a transition. The transition is going to be some great music coming from Nathaniel Rateliff for about five minutes, and then we’ll get to Reverend Barber.”

His guests struggled also. “Am I still on?” DeFazio asked at one point. Sanders reassured him, “You’re still on. Sounded good.”

“This is weird. The Internet,” DeFazio observed.

Trump’s campaign has also had to adjust to the new normal, although he has effectively used his powerful platform by giving televised updates on the pandemic.

A “Women For Trump” show March 26 included simulcasts from the homes of Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany and Republican National Committee political director Chris Carr. About 15 minutes into the program, McEnany’s video feed cut out, and then the audio dropped for all participants for a few minutes.

“The challenges for working from home, you know,” McEnany said when she reconnected.

The virtual events are in a sense impersonal, in that they provide no contact between candidate and voter. But just as workers across America are taking part in video conferences that provide glimpses into colleagues’ family rooms and kitchens, Americans are getting a sense of how the candidates live.

“It’s extremely relatable because everyone right now is sitting at home except for essential workers,” said Lis Smith, who was a top adviser to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. “So being able to broadcast into people’s homes from your own home is a lot more relatable than standing in the Rose Garden.”

Sanders’s Monday night live stream came from a room in his home that is painted red and features a framed poster from the musical group The Strokes, promoting an event the band held for him in New Hampshire.

DeFazio, Sanders’s longtime friend, referred to the senator several times simply as “Bern,” providing a hint at their closeness.

“Oh Bern, let me tell you about the airlines,” he said at one point.

The candidates sometimes resemble awkward variety show hosts. As Sanders introduced Sonia Shah, the author of a book on pandemics, he veered into a discussion of movies. “I recently saw again — I guess everybody is looking at these types of movies — the movie ‘Contagion.’ Have you seen that?” he said to Shah.

“Yes, I did,” she replied.

For audience members who had not viewed the 2011 thriller about a deadly virus that causes global panic, Sanders offered a synopsis of how that fictional virus got started.

“It was about a bat driven away and it was deforestation,” Sanders explained. “The bat went to an area where human beings are — I can’t remember if it was feces or saliva — go into areas where pigs were eating. And then you got some cook, working with the pig, preparing the pig and shaking hands with a person, and you’re off and running.”

Returning to his guest, Sanders asked: “Is that kind of the things we have to worry about?”

Biden has offered his own film criticism. In an email newsletter that debuted March 25, he answered reader questions, offered an update on his wife (“She’s great. Probably tired of being around me so much at this point.”) and provided his own movie plug.

“My favorite movie is 1981’s Chariots of Fire,” he wrote. “It’s a true story from the 1924 Olympics of two runners. It has sports, religion, some big questions to think through, and ultimately a really uniting take about how small our differences really are. Give that a watch!”

Biden’s inaugural podcast featured his former chief of staff, Ronald Klain, who was also tapped in 2014 as the Ebola czar during the Obama administration.

“I’d like to welcome Ron, who’s an old friend to the show. Ron, how are you, pal?”

“Good. Thank you, sir. It’s a pleasure to be with you on your very first podcast,” Klain replied.

“Well, it’s good to be doing my very first podcast,” Biden said. “Things are changing an awful lot. And Ron, I’m going to, with your permission, ask a few questions, if that’s okay.”

“Sure. Sounds great. Let’s do it,” Klain responded.

Toward the end of the podcast, Biden turned back to Klain. “Thanks for sticking around, pal,” he said. “And I’m going to call on you a lot more. You know, I call on you almost every day for non-pod advice.”

Then he signed off.

“Everybody stay healthy, stay safe and we’ll be talking to you regularly,” the former vice president said. “Thank you so much. Bye-bye.”

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.