Washington Wednesday – Virtual campaign pitfalls

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 3rd of June, 2020. We’re so glad you’ve joined us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Washington Wednesday.

Maybe it seems trite to call this one of the most unusual election years in recent memory. 

Politics is all about rallies and crowds and yet what we have this time around is campaigns by Skype and Zoom. Public officials giving interviews via laptop cameras and earbuds. And a challenge for the White House from a basement in Delaware.

It’s all so very strange. 

And joining me now to talk about it is WORLD’s national editor Jamie Dean. Morning, Jamie.


EICHER: As fast as everything shut down for so many people, that was true for the campaigns too, wasn’t it?

DEAN: Yeah, I think back to a day in late February, and it seems surreal to think about how all of the Democratic candidates, and dozens of reporters, and about 200 people in an audience were all crammed into a church gymnasium. We were so close, I had another reporter’s knee in my back while we were sitting on a set of bleachers. None of us had heard the phrase social distancing at that point. 

That was a really critical week for Biden, and I sort of wonder what might have happened if we all had to go home before he won the South Carolina primary—because that was the contest that really unlocked the other primaries for him. He really is more of an in-person campaigner, so that victory came just in time.

EICHER: Yes, just in time—not long before everybody had to head home—Biden included.

DEAN: He did. Now his home is pretty nice. He quarantined with his wife, Jill, in their home in Delaware, and his aides quickly tried to set up a makeshift campaign headquarters in their finished basement. It’s sort of like a recreational room downstairs.

EICHER: How do you assess the performance?

DEAN: Well, this is where things got a little rough for Biden. Like many people of an older generation—or even a younger generation if I’m being completely honest about myself—Biden isn’t terribly tech savvy. And his campaign really struggled with figuring out how to quickly transition to a digital and remote set-up. There was just no more of the classic, hand-shaking, baby-kissing campaign stops. 

So Biden was doing morning show appearances from home, and technicians in Sioux City, Iowa, were actually running the cameras remotely. Then the campaign decided to set up a virtual town hall—but it was really buggy, the sound wasn’t working correctly, and at one point, Biden just asked: “Am I on camera?”

EICHER: Didn’t really get better, did it?

DEAN: Definitely not. It actually got a little worse. A few weeks later, the campaign announced it would hold its first virtual campaign rally. And I thought, well, they’ve had a few weeks to smooth out the wrinkles, so hopefully this will be a little better.

But this turned out to be downright painful. The live feeds of speakers were bogged down, they were putting the wrong names to the wrong faces, people didn’t realize they were on camera for a while. The connections were so poor, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times later wrote: “Their feeds were visibly delayed as if they were transmitting from Afghanistan and not Tampa Bay.”

EICHER: But I imagine a lot of people—those who’ve been able to work from home—can probably sympathize. Does it really matter if a virtual event doesn’t go well?

DEAN: That’s a fair question, and it probably didn’t matter a ton at that point, particularly since so many people were trying to adjust to being quarantined and trying to avoid getting sick, but here’s the thing: It will matter as time drags on. 

Even now it’s hard to see a return anytime soon to the sort of retail campaigning we’re so accustomed to seeing during a typical presidential campaign. So as the summer drags on, and people do start to get more focused on the presidential election, it’s going to be really important for the Biden campaign to be figuring out how to reach voters in a way that they haven’t mastered yet.

EICHER: Let’s talk about President Trump, whose stay-at-home has been an advantage of sorts.

DEAN: True, true, given home at the moment is the White House. That’s certainly given him greater visibility—for better or for worse. During March and April the president was really focused on the pandemic, and holding these daily briefings about the government’s response. So he wasn’t directly campaigning at that point, though how a president performs has an effect on how voters respond to him later.

But his campaign team was in full force at this point. They really quickly made the switch to a fully online campaign that was up and running almost immediately. Every night at 8:00 p.m. on the campaign’s YouTube channel, a different show would pop up. And it would be live. Sometimes it would be “Latinos for Trump” or “Catholics for Trump” or Donald Trump Jr., doing his version of a kind of intentionally provocative talk show.

And these shows opened with television quality, high-speed graphics. They were operating  on a noticeably higher level than the Biden campaign—at least in terms of the technical and the presentation side of it.

EICHER: Right, we haven’t really talked about content much. That seems like the most important thing, doesn’t it?

DEAN: It does, though how you present the content is part of whether you’re effective or not. And I think that’s the thing both campaigns will have to reckon with.

EICHER: But for President Trump in particular, there’s a certain medium is the message thing for him, drawing the big crowds—that’s part of the pitch, part of his political brand.

DEAN: That’s right. For Trump, the big rallies really are the signature events of his campaign. And I think it’s hard for the president to imagine going all the way to November without them. That’s probably part of the reason he’s insisted on having a full-capacity, in-person Republican National Convention here in Charlotte this August.

It’s not clear how that will work, or whether people will really want to pack into an arena at that point, but I think it’s important enough to the campaign’s style for them to try to press for it and see if it’s possible.

EICHER: We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the last few days of turmoil in the country, and how that might affect the presidential campaigns. What are your thoughts there?

DEAN: In some ways, I’ve thought very little about the campaigns over the last few days. I’ve thought less about how will this affect what happens in November and more about what’s going to happen tonight or tomorrow? 

All of this will undoubtedly become fodder for both campaigns over the next few months, and there’s a place to parse through how the president responds, and what Joe Biden thinks would work better. 

At the moment, I think I’m struck by how God gives us leaders who have to grapple with how to get through times like these. But He really has given us only one Savior, and He’s not a politician. So we can pray for leaders who do wise things, but we really do have to ask for God’s mercy and look to Him for the help that only He can ultimately give us.

EICHER: Amen. Jamie Dean, national editor for WORLD. Good word, Jamie. Thanks.

DEAN: Thanks, Nick.

(AP Photo, File) In this combination of file photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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