Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have navigated this new rhythm with mixed results. After he outlined his plan to deal with the epidemic Tuesday, and as unfavorable election results rolled in, Sanders bid his audience good night and looked at the camera for a signal.
It didn’t come right away, leaving him on camera long enough to take a deep breath that betrayed the measure of his impatience.
Later that evening, when Biden wrapped up his own stoic remarks, he was surprised to see his wife, Jill, wandering his way. She popped into the shot, they exchanged a few quick kisses. Then Biden offered a forceful “oh-kay” to no one in particular and followed her off-screen.
Such are the adjustments Biden, Sanders and their campaigns are being forced to make in the age of the novel coronavirus. The two near-octagenarians are ditching habits honed over a combined 90 years in politics at a decisive moment in the 2020 Democratic primary.
They are doing so as their eventual Republican opponent, President Trump, delivers daily, televised briefings from the White House, and as the spread of a pandemic unprecedented in modern times makes getting attention — and striking the right tone — a particularly challenging balancing act.
Before the novel coronavirus shut down much of the country, Sanders was flying from state to state, holding star-studded rallies with frantic advance teams setting up risers and multi-ton speaker boxes. On Monday night, Sanders tried to recreate that energy digitally, hosting what his campaign called a digital rally.
The event, streamed live on his campaign’s website, included remarks from surrogates and video performances from musical artists — including Neil Young, who was joined by wife Daryl Hannah and his dog, who continually appeared at the bottom of the screen. Jim James of My Morning Jacket sang into a mic in a darkened stage with images of Sanders, his crowds, or the outline of white hair and glasses flashing behind him now and then.
Surrogates like Nina Turner and Phillip Agnew filmed themselves against walls, holding their phones or propping them up before recording messages for the audience. Sanders spoke from his campaign’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, massive stage replaced by careful staging of books and signs — and even a Bernie Sanders action figure, still in the box — and a Live on Air sign in the bookcases behind him.
“I don’t have to tell anybody that we’re living in an unprecedented and strange moment in the history of our country,” Sanders said then. The normally adoring Sanders crowd was replaced by a stream of comments and emojis in the live chat at the side of the screen, a collection of disparate thoughts more than a conversation — some critical, some supportive, some nonsensical — many reading simply, “LOVE YOU BERNIE.”
Biden, a master of the rope line, has also transitioned online, offering tele-town halls and streamed speeches. During his first foray into digital campaigning, technical difficulties forced him to speak into an iPhone while walking in front of a camera during a virtual town hall.
In the days since, Biden’s campaign seemed to have worked out the kinks, hosting a much smoother tele-town hall Monday and election-night address from his home in Wilmington, Del.
While his and other campaigns have years of precedent and years of practice setting the stage for the usual rallies, digital campaigning may remain a work in progress.
“I liked the content of Biden’s speech. Smart to reach out to Bernie’s supporters and be sober and serious. It reminded me of the tone we previously would just expect from any president in a crisis. Going forward, it would be good not to stream it on an iPhone 6,” tweeted Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the Obama administration and co-host of the podcast Pod Save America.
The need to adapt has filtered down to other levels of the campaigns, too. On their websites, events that once included phone banks and volunteer meetups now begin with the word “virtual” — virtual phone banks, virtual training sessions, virtual parties.
Sanders’s campaign eschewed “Get Out the Vote” efforts entirely ahead of primaries in Arizona, Florida and Illinois this week, citing public health concerns.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, set up a series of Get Out the Vote call-in meetings with Jill Biden and relevant surrogates. They held four of those calls on Monday — one for each of the states initially scheduled to vote Tuesday (At the last minute, Ohio postponed in-person voting for its primary).
They held those calls on Zoom, the videoconferencing platform that allows large groups of people to join meetings with audio and/or video feeds.
Jill Biden was never on camera, addressing those virtual rooms via audio. Some of those who joined the calls to hear her made a different choice, leaving an awkward array of windows into various Americans’ homes splayed across the top of the screen — some cooking, some looking puzzled at the computer and more than one displaying the underside of their chin as they tried to figure out how to turn their cameras off.
The Arizona call featured gregarious Rep. Ruben Gallego, a former Kamala D. Harris supporter who shifted his support to Biden recently. Gallego was not shy about appearing on audio or video, and he spent the moments before the call began chatting with his wife about what to get for lunch that day, for all to hear.
They seemed to settle on salads before Gallego shifted his focus to the call, fixing his collar and adjusting his posture. “We’re all trying to make ourselves look prettier,” Gallego told the room. “We’re definitely in a whole new world.”
He, other surrogates and Biden spent most of those calls stumping for the former vice president and urging supporters to urge others to vote as safely as possible. Occasionally, an attendee would interrupt.
“Is anyone talking? I can’t hear anyone,” one woman said at one point, apparently unaware that anyone could hear her. Speakers pressed on through those interruptions as if they did not happen.
Surrogate events often draw small groups of loyalists rather than big crowds, and Biden’s events spoke to an issue he, Sanders and down-ballot campaigns might run into in the coming weeks: Broadening interest. Zoom Meetings list the participants, sometimes by username, sometimes by phone number, depending on the preference of those logged in. The area codes for Biden’s events revealed many of the around 50 people that participated were reporters or staffers. Others were names of publicly named donors or avid supporters already working for his cause.
One of those on the Florida call was attorney James Dickson, who has been working on Biden’s behalf for months, joining organizing calls similar to that one in the process.
“Quite honestly, I was really discouraged that I didn’t see the campaign doing anything in Florida. I remember a month ago wondering ‘do we have lawn signs? Do we have lists that we can call?’ ” said Dickson, who said the Biden campaign did not have a robust operation in his area due to a lack of funding early on.
“We hear about [ramping up Biden’s campaign operation], but frankly, I’m not sure it was needed,” he said in the hours before Tuesday’s results came in. Dickson was right: A lack of on-the-ground campaigning in Florida did not prevent Biden from winning a landslide victory there Tuesday. The question for the eventual Democratic nominee now seems to be whether it will prevent him from winning in November.