Indeed, The New York Times ran op-ed pieces in May that could qualify as action memos to the Biden campaign.
Lis Smith, a former campaign adviser to Obama, penned a May 7 column: “How Joe Biden Can Defeat Trump From His Basement.” The strategist suggested the specific newspapers and local television stations the campaign should court and suggested subjects for mini-documentaries to produce for a potentially virtual Democratic National Convention.
Three days earlier, a column from David Axelrod urged the Biden campaign to pick up the tempo on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms: “In many ways they are the campaign, not an important part of it.”
That’s a memo the Trump campaign already follows. The president maintains a massive Twitter following, though his use of the platform is infamously tempestuous. (In May, he suddenly called for an investigation into MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, apparently related to the 2001 death of a staffer in Scarborough’s congressional office. The president called the anchor “a total nut job.”)
But the Trump campaign also quickly constructed a digital plan fit for a quarantine when mass gatherings screeched to a halt in March. Nightly livestreamed shows with Trump surrogates and staffers feature coalitions like “Catholics for Trump,” “Black Voices for Trump,” and “Latinos for Trump.” It’s a glimpse into groups of voters the campaign is still targeting for outreach, despite the pandemic.
The livestreams—including Donald Trump Jr.’s intentionally provocative talk show Triggered—open with television-quality graphics and feature well-produced campaign commercials. They often begin with a message: “Enjoy the Show.”
PEEL BACK THE SHOW’S CURTAIN and you’ll find plenty of other campaign events unfolding behind the scenes. Both presidential campaigns have pivoted to online volunteer training and virtual gatherings with supporters.
The Zoom events try to evoke a sense of community (one Biden event organized by a volunteer invited participants to display their cats during a Zoom call), but it’s a tough match for the camaraderie of sitting in a room with other volunteers, eating free pizza and making calls for a candidate.
At one virtual phone bank organized by a Biden volunteer in Georgia, a handful of participants connected via Zoom and appeared on-screen from their homes. But they muted their speakers as they called Biden supporters from a list supplied by the campaign. They essentially watched each other make calls.
Axelrod urged the Biden campaign to pick up the tempo on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms: “In many ways they are the campaign, not an important part of it.”
A video call for Catholic supporters of Trump featured Lou Holtz, a former college football coach and sports broadcaster. Holtz said he appreciated Trump’s support for pro-life positions and religious liberty. After he recited a harmless but slightly salty poem about politics, Mike Mears, a Republican National Committee staffer, said he had forgotten to mention the call was off-limits to the media. I hung up.
I didn’t last long on another gathering for Trump supporters after following a Zoom link to a prayer call. After a bit of chit-chat among the participants, the convener of the call announced, “If you are a member of the media you have to HANG UP.” I hung up.
I had more success on a Friday evening ice cream social for Biden supporters from Virginia. The description invited participants to grab their favorite bowl of ice cream and hop online to discuss how COVID-19 is affecting small businesses.
As far as I could tell, no one was eating ice cream (and the organizer said she doesn’t like to eat sweets before dinner), but the dessertless social did turn to a serious discussion of how participants were coping with the coronavirus shutdown.
A manager of a nursing home said he is struggling to obtain enough personal protective equipment for his staffers caring for vulnerable populations during the outbreak that has devastated some nursing facilities.
The other participants brainstormed ideas, and one said she could deliver 100 surgical masks by the weekend. There was surprisingly little discussion of politics or of Biden—a reminder that personal realities are looming larger than political ones for many Americans at the moment.
Later that evening, I hopped on a Netflix Party with a handful of college students from Georgia. They were Biden supporters watching Becoming, a documentary about former first lady Michelle Obama. A chat box ran beside the movie as we watched.
As the documentary unfolded, I was taken back to the massive enthusiasm that surrounded the Obamas during the 2008 campaign. I wondered: Could Biden generate this kind of enthusiasm as a candidate, apart from running against Trump? By the end of the movie, the handful of participants in the chat box had bantered about their admiration for the Obamas. None had mentioned Biden.