Former Vice President Joe Biden’s journey to the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination just got a little longer and a lot more complicated.
Biden’s recent call for his party to delay the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee to later in the summer reflected the growing concern that the massive gathering of thousands of politicians and party faithful would accelerate the spread of the coronavirus.
The Democratic National Committee announced Thursday that the event nominating the presidential and vice presidential candidates and formally kicking off the general election campaign would begin August 17. That is three weeks later than originally scheduled and a week before the Republicans convene in Charlotte, North Carolina, to nominate President Donald Trump for a second term.
The abrupt convention schedule shift marks one more disruption in Biden’s presumptive path to becoming his party’s nominee.
State primaries that could have delivered Biden the decisive number of delegates needed to end rival Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the nomination have been rescheduled because of coronavirus quarantine measures.
Biden holds a commanding lead in the race, with 1,217 pledged delegates to Sanders’ 914 delegates. But he is still short of the 1,991 delegates needed to wrap up the nomination, and Sanders has refused to concede.
Now both men are in a kind of campaign limbo, deprived of the chance to hold in-person rallies of voters while Trump holds daily White House briefings on the national public health crisis.
“There is a real disadvantage here. President Trump gets to get on TV every night and surround himself with experts and officials and look very authoritative, as though he is in charge. And that's what the nation wants during a time of crisis,” said Todd Belt, the director of the political management program at George Washington University.
“This sort of scenario with Biden and Trump is a natural advantage of an incumbent,” said Matt Gorman, a strategist who worked on Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign as well as Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. Gorman noted that during that 2012 campaign, Obama traveled to areas of New York and New Jersey battered by Superstorm Sandy in his role as commander in chief.
“That is something a candidate cannot replicate,” Gorman said.
In an unprecedented national emergency, Biden and Sanders run the risk of appearing crass and undermining national safety if they go too far in criticizing Trump.
“Anything that they would do more than they're doing now might look mean-spirited,” Belt said. “Could you imagine if they did something like the [Democrats’ negative] response to the president's State of the Union? If they did a response completely undermining all the efforts of the nation's response to it?”
Alex Wall, who was director of social media for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, notes that Biden’s digital campaign strategy has included pushbacks against Trump’s coronavirus response. Wall singled out the Biden campaign’s use of surrogate Ron Klain, a former Obama administration official who led government efforts to address the Ebola epidemic, in digital outreach.
“The whiteboard explainer that they released across their channels last week from him was really effective,” Wall said. “Regular, consistent updates, whether it's from Ron Klain, whether it's from the candidate, I think those are going to be really critical to just give people sort of the facts on how do we combat this crisis.”
At a time when millions of Americans are housebound and on their phones more than ever, Biden has had to pivot to digital campaigning when his strength has always been with in-person interactions on the campaign trail.
The Biden campaign spent five days refitting a room in his Delaware home as an ad-hoc studio for television broadcasting following tightened coronavirus shelter-in-place procedures. That delay noticeably contrasted with the Sanders campaign, which has been broadcasting out of the candidate’s home for over a year and often re-creates the enthusiasm of his in-person rallies with well-attended Facebook Live events.
Wall says Biden has strengths as a candidate that can be matched to this moment on social media.
“In some of the Facebook Live video livestream events that he's done or even interviews on cable, he really sort of meets people where they are in terms of loss and struggle,” he said. Biden lost his wife and 1-year old daughter in a car accident in 1973 and lost an adult son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.
Instagram Live, Facebook Live and even his recently launched podcast can provide Biden with important opportunities to connect with voters.
“People really need to hear and see a leader across channels that is empathizing with them, that is talking about what it's like to lose a loved one or lose a job or be facing some of these hardships,” according to Wall.
This is one way Biden can try to overcome Sanders’ social media strength and challenge Sanders’ call for Medicare for All, which is resonating in the face of huge gaps in health care amid the coronavirus crisis. While both men are bound by social distancing procedures that rule out in-person interactions on the campaign trail, the pressure is on Biden to eliminate his one remaining primary rival and then take on the president.
“The longer this gets drawn out, the more difficult it will be for Biden to bring over Sanders' voters,” Belt said.
That makes this summer’s Democratic National Convention – when Biden likely will have that long-denied moment of cementing his nomination – so important.
“A convention is basically an infomercial for the candidate,” Belt said, noting that with any change in the convention, “you're losing that whole block of time to present the candidate on a national stage." Neither is there a chance to show the delegates, who serve "as visual props, holding up their signs. I really think we underestimate how important that is to generate enthusiasm as well.”
But even that rescheduled convention start date in August is uncertain. There’s no guarantee the nation will be out of the coronavirus crisis and fully back to normal in a way that could allow such a large gathering to draw all attention back to the presidential election.