If Joe Biden plays his cards right, the death of the traditional presidential campaign will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The 77-year-old Biden, whom the president derisively calls “Sleepy Joe,” can become the hottest bad boy and disrupter in the media game.
It seems likely that social distancing will force the presidential campaign to be played out entirely on our screens. That will free Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, of the burden of running a gruelling, expensive campaign involving incessant travel.
Instead, he can be digitally omnipresent — at a small fraction of the cost and physical toll — and create a new paradigm for how presidential campaigns communicate in the press for years to come.
Biden’s greatest asset as a campaigner is his palpable empathy. Politicians can learn a lot of tricks — talking points, debate and interview strategies — but personal warmth is something that cannot be taught. It also happens to be a trait that translates well on TV.
Think about Biden’s 2017 appearance on the “The View,” when he comforted a visibly emotional Meghan McCain after her father, Senator John McCain, learnt he had terminal brain cancer. It was a raw and remarkable moment of live TV — and most seasoned politicians would have struggled. Biden thrived.
This human touch is especially important at a time when voters are looking as much for a “healer in chief” as they are a commander in chief. It also sets up a stark contrast with President Trump, who in crisis after crisis has demonstrated a lack of empathy and inability to feel Americans’ pain.
Democrats should use the media to highlight Biden’s empathy and position him as the presidential warm blanket that a scarred America will need after four years of Trump. But they need to realise that in 2020, there is no silver bullet when it comes to persuasive public relations campaigns.
To win the PR war and the election, they must focus on the coalition they need to put together to defeat Trump, understand how the groups in it consume news and commit to meeting these voters where they are.
It starts with a heavy focus on America’s most trusted media source, local news. To get to 270 Electoral College votes, the Biden campaign really needs to win three states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. It won’t be a whistle-stop tour, but Biden can still generate the news coverage he will need to win there.
With his home TV studio, he can beam into morning shows in Milwaukee and Madison. With his telephone, he can call into popular Philadelphia and Pittsburgh radio shows and be interviewed by reporters and columnists. He can blanket the media in those states before he sits down for dinner — and all from the comfort of his Delaware home.
He can deploy former Democratic rivals like Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders to blanket local, national and partisan media with a message of how important it is for Democrats of all stripes and candidate loyalties to turn out for Biden in November.
He can lean on his celebrity supporters to share good news about his campaign on their platforms. Ariana Grande, an outspoken Democrat, has over 180 million followers on Instagram, making her one of the most-followed persons in the world. Dwayne Johnson (the rock on Instagram), another Democrat, also tops 180 million followers.
These figures appeal to very different fan bases; celebrity supporters like them can bring the campaign’s message to nontraditional and non-political outlets that might otherwise be disinclined to get into the weeds of an election — sports-talk radio, Top 40 stations and gossip sites.Biden could also harness the newfound star power and credibility of the “coronavirus governors” like Andrew Cuomo, Gretchen Whitmer and Gavin Newsom to highlight the life-and-death stakes of this election.
Similarly, we can rethink the way we approach traditionally marquee presidential campaign moments like the convention. We’ve been doing conventions wrong for years. Days and days of mediocre speeches from politicians unknown to the public, programming that puts even political junkies to sleep. They’re prohibitively expensive, time-intensive and of limited value in reaching anyone but true believers.
And they are overrated in their ability to fundamentally shift the dynamics of a presidential race. Do you remember when the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia helped swing Pennsylvania for Hillary Clinton or the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa delivered Florida for Mitt Romney?
Biden is generally favoured in national and swing-state polls, but it’s important to put this lead in perspective. At this point four years ago, Hillary Clinton also enjoyed a polling advantage over Trump. The Clinton campaign played it safe with a quintessential “Rose Garden strategy,” limiting media access and skipping campaign stops in swing states like Wisconsin, with an unshakeable faith that Trump would eventually self-destruct.
Similarly, in crisis management, Biden can also learn something from the failures of Clinton and another previous Democratic nominee, John Kerry. Neither could squelch partisan narratives (a secret email server and Swift Boat attacks) by trying to starve them of oxygen.
Last week, in his appearance on “Morning Joe” to address sexual assault accusations by his former Senate aide Tara Reade, Biden smartly followed best crisis-management practice: a no-holds-barred sit-down. He took on the allegations directly, forcefully denied them and answered no fewer than 20 questions, helping to put to rest any suspicions that he might be hiding something.
Ultimately, for Biden to be victorious, he’s going to have to beat the heavyweight champion of generating media attention, Trump. He should be willing to go everywhere, as Trump was in 2016. It is an indication of the president’s weakness four years later that he sticks to the safety of Fox News, Sean Hannity’s show and Twitter.
Trump’s freewheeling moments in appearances that do reach a broader audience, as in the daily coronavirus briefings, have exposed him as unfit, like his recent suggestion to treat Covid-19 with disinfectant. If the public continues to lose confidence in his management of the pandemic, it’s likely that he’ll revert even more to predictable and small partisan corners.
By going everywhere, Biden will meet voters where they are, on their terms. Being able to do so without leaving his makeshift home studio gives him a tremendous advantage.
It’s only fitting that a “return to normality” would be achieved through the most abnormal circumstances in recent campaign history.
Lis Smith is a noted American campaign manager