No traditional campaigning. No high-priced fundraising dinners. No schmoozing with the supporters along a crowded rope line. No whistle-stop tours with speeches from the open platform of a rail car. No problem.
The astonishing thing about former vice-president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is that he has accomplished so much by doing so little. His plans for the rest of the campaign? Not that much, either.
It’s not as if he has retreated into his basement and aimlessly let month after month float away. Last week he led a “socially distant fundraiser” with former president Barack Obama and another this week with Senator Elizabeth Warren (“Chip in any amount,” he said). His tweet Wednesday that Donald Trump was “the worst possible person to lead our nation through this moment” won considerable attention.
But Mr. Biden isn’t quarrelling with clear summertime success and perhaps the biggest surprise of the campaign this far: He has barely left his Delaware redoubt below ground, and yet his numbers continue to climb skyward. His face is rarely uncovered, and yet he and his campaign staff may unwittingly have uncovered the perfect campaign style for a candidate whose cheeks carry the marks of age, whose interactions with the public are fraught with danger and whose ability to stay on message, as the political pros put it, is at best limited.
Mr. Biden possesses in equal measure the gifts of gab and gaffe, occasionally more the latter than the former. Through three presidential campaigns his top assistants have struggled to impose verbal discipline on him, to press him to speak in the diagrammed sentences of his Catholic school education at St. Paul’s Elementary School in Scranton, Pa., rather than in his trademark frantic bursts, where themes disperse like jet contrails.
Staying at home, reined in by aides and by a wife who taught high school English and has a doctorate in education, may be the perfect formula for a candidate often described as an old shoe but whose political instincts are more like a Vaudeville soft shoe.
Indeed, Mr. Biden’s success with underexposure is in stark contrast with Mr. Trump’s peril with overexposure. The President’s approval rating has suffered a net drop of 28 percentage points since March, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, and Trump 2016 states such as Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Florida are experiencing high rates of COVID-19 infection – and increasingly seem receptive to Mr. Biden’s noncampaign campaign.
Nobody has ever asked just how little a candidate needs to do to be elected president of the United States, but Mr. Biden may inadvertently be providing an answer: damn little – at least in a year like this.
Jimmy Carter didn’t campaign much in 1980, using the self-serving (and ultimately futile) argument that trying to gain the release of the 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran dominated his attention. Ronald Reagan was in such a commanding position four years later against former vice-president Walter Mondale that he didn’t have to campaign much, returning to the White House most nights to sleep in his own bed.
“Not every night, but lots of nights,” said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer who worked for the 40th president’s re-election.
Then again, Mr. Reagan worked ardently for Republican congressional candidates, helping them pick up 16 seats in the House of Representatives, and he knew he could command an audience just by showing up in the White House briefing room. Mr. Biden has no one sitting in front of his home in Wilmington, Del., waiting for him to make news. He’s trying to win the most visible position in the world essentially by remaining invisible.
Even so, he has released several important policy initiatives – on infrastructure, health care and the environment.
“He’s being respectful of public health, his ads are good, and he is getting a message out,” said Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist and director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California, in an interview. “Meanwhile Trump flails around. Barring some unforeseen development, it seems the country is done with Trump.”
The governing assumption inside Democratic circles is that Mr. Trump is so toxic, and perhaps even more blundering than Mr. Biden, that he makes the case for the challenger’s election just by being himself. They’re not running a front-porch campaign like the one James Garfield pioneered to win the presidency in 1880. They’re running a basement campaign. The only modern analogue: Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, when he did about one event a week in the fall until the very end – and then only in large states.
“This works, at least for now, for Biden,” said William Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist. “It wouldn’t work against an ordinary opponent. The virus gives Biden a great excuse to keep himself hidden from the public. There are legitimate questions to be raised about Biden, but the fewer public appearances he makes the fewer the questions raised.”
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