The faceoff comes as much of the presidential campaign has been either put on hold or shifted online as the contenders retool for an new era of economic crisis and social distancing. Fundraisers have been postponed, rallies have been canceled, and new technologies are under consideration.
General election strategists have put new polls in the field and shuffled plans for spring advertising campaigns, even as Biden’s sole challenger for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), remains in the race.
Few are willing to predict with any certainty how the events of the last few weeks will affect what is still expected to be a close election in November. But Democrats are hopeful that the crisis will put into sharp relief the arguments they have been making for months.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden, said that the American people were seeing in the pandemic response the consequences of “the chaos around this president.”
“There is a price that this nation pays for that behavior,” Dunn said. “As we move forward that is going to be a case we prosecute.”
Republicans, by contrast, are hopeful that Trump’s role as head of the federal response to the novel coronavirus will insulate him against the coming Democratic critiques about his leadership. Trump has told advisers that his daily news conferences are helping him because they show him involved, and advisers are hoping to utilize the video footage of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo praising the president in ads.
“Anybody who attempts to politicize and weaponize a public health crisis is revealed to be petty and peevish,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. “To criticize Trump now is to criticize public health officials, FEMA, first responders, private sector businesses that are all coming forward to help.”
Neither side has pulled its punches in near-daily diatribes.
Trump’s campaign communications director accused Biden of pushing critiques of Trump that “dangerously undermine the federal public health effort by purposely sowing confusion and fear merely for the sake of politics.”
Biden, who has refrained from criticizing Trump while he is abroad out of respect for the office, told reporters Friday that Trump “is falsely telling us he’s taking action he has not taken, promising results he’s not delivering and announcing actions that he has not even ordered.”
Biden’s campaign also released a digital video accusing Trump of adopting a “don’t test, don’t tell mind-set” that failed to prepare the nation for the coronavirus.
As it adjusts to the pandemic, the Biden campaign has been scrambling to build out a new television studio in the recreation room of his Delaware home so he can communicate with voters — his first presentation took place Monday morning — and his staff is exploring technological solutions that would allow him brief interactions over video conference with individual voters that would imitate a rope-line encounter.
The campaign’s immediate focus is on the policy response to the virus, but the political message focuses heavily on the Democratic case that Trump has mishandled the crisis.
Biden used his address Monday to escalate his criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, saying he hoped Trump “steps up and starts to get this right.”
“Trump keeps saying that he’s a wartime president,” Biden said. “Well, start to act like one.”
“Donald Trump is not to blame for the coronavirus, but he does bear responsibility for our response,” he added.
The attack builds upon a broader argument that the pandemic confirms concerns many potential swing voters have about Trump.
“What the coronavirus response has done in very short order is demonstrated an immediate, tangible, significant impact of the president’s impulsiveness and the chaos he has sowed,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, a super PAC that plans to spend $150 million in an effort to defeat Trump this year. Priorities bought $6 million in television and digital ads this week in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, criticizing Trump’s virus response and praising Biden’s.
Democrats have also noted with relief that the viral emergency has forced a break in the Trump campaign’s effort to disqualify Biden with personal attacks as he tries to unify the Democratic Party and refill his own campaign’s considerably inferior coffers.
“Biden is always going to do best when we look at this election as a referendum on who would be the best commander in chief,” said Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “And this is a commander in chief moment.”
Trump campaign advisers do see some liability in how the president handled the opening days of the virus — particularly in the lack of testing and the continuing slow response despite vocal pleas from overwhelmed hospitals. Some close to the president fear that if the stock market continues to drop — and unemployment goes into the double digits — it would be difficult to reelect the president who has cast his central argument as a booming economy.
Trump has sought to rewrite history in some ways, insisting that he was focused on the pandemic early even as he downplayed it publicly and ignored warnings about its potential on American soil. He also is working to negotiate a large stimulus package that aides hope will have political benefits.
Trump advisers have been cheered by recent public polling that finds more than half of the country approves of Trump’s response to the crisis, a number far better than his typical approval numbers in polls. Some advisers say they believe the country will rally around the president during a crisis.
“Americans want to see their president out front and leading in a time of national crisis and that’s exactly what President Trump is doing,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director, said in a statement. “At the same time, Joe Biden and the Democrats offer nothing but ineffective partisan sniping from the sidelines.”
Biden himself has been pushing a different story line about Trump’s performance.
“The president has been behind the curve throughout this whole response,” Biden told reporters Friday. “Stop saying false things that make you sound like a hero . . . Stop, stop, stop swerving between overpromising, buck-passing, and start delivering protection to our people.”
Biden has been talking at length with his advisers to formulate an economic plan. Although staying largely in the background, he has been in frequent contact with House and Senate Democratic leaders to keep tabs on legislation that they are crafting and to offer his own feedback. While Trump has been holding calls with governors, Biden has, too. He has been in contact with Cuomo, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D), and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), among others.
But he has been frustrated that he’s confined to his home in Wilmington, Del. — the virus has a higher mortality rate among older Americans like Biden, who is 77 years old — and the constraints that limitation has placed on his campaign.
His advisers feel he is at a distinct disadvantage in an all-digital campaign because Biden’s strength lies in the way he builds an emotional rapport with voters face-to-face, a type of campaigning that will be hindered now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to avoid crowds larger than 10 people.
Now, he has said, when campaign aides enter his home, they are first putting on masks and wearing gloves.
The biggest shift in Biden’s digital strategy is in fundraising. Over the weekend he held two high-dollar virtual fundraisers — appearing via video. But at the same time he was hoping to escalate his online fundraising appeals among those willing to give smaller amounts, aides said, the economic crisis has made them wary of hammering supporters over the head asking for money. Instead, they are trying softer approaches, sending emails that try to draw people into the campaign in other ways.
An aide said Biden’s vast army of high-profile endorsers, many of them former presidential candidates, will likely be featured in digital events soon, too, perhaps even holding their own events. Former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, who has campaigned for Biden in several states, has volunteered to host yoga online during the time of quarantine.
Trump begins what is effectively the start of the general election with a vast advantage in money, but replenishing his accounts is suddenly more problematic. One Republican strategist involved in the Trump campaign’s efforts said it was a difficult time to ask for money because the markets are down and people are worried.
The president has no fundraisers or rallies planned at the moment, though Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, RNC finance chairman Todd Ricketts and others continue to make fundraising calls behind the scenes.
Volunteers from Trump Victory, the RNC’s field effort, are still calling supporters; a Republican official with knowledge of the matter said they made 1.4 million calls on Saturday. Officials working in battleground states across the country are holding webinars with field organizers and volunteers to strategize on reaching voters. (Trump’s headquarters staff, as well as Biden’s, are working from home to lower their risk of catching the virus.)
The Trump campaign plans to lean on its significant data operation in the coming months to communicate digitally with supporters.
“The campaign and RNC have built up a massive, unparalleled database containing the contact information of tens of millions of voters and we are putting that information to work to maintain contact with voters and spread the President’s message,” Murtaugh said. “We continue to consider new, creative ways to interact with voters, provide them with information, and let them know how they can help.”
American Bridge, another Democratic group spending money to defeat Trump, recently released a new digital ad that cuts together quotes from Trump downplaying the severity of the coronavirus with reports of the horrific potential consequences of the pandemic.
Bradley Beychok, president of American Bridge, said the group was going to conduct research over the coming weeks about how to best push a message in television ads to hurt Trump among white working class voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Like other Democrats, he was hopeful that the president’s support would take a hit.
“Trump’s superpower sometimes is deflection,” Beychok said. “It is a very hard thing for Trump to distract people from what is going on right now.”
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.