The candidates remained their essential selves — even at a virtual, epidemiology-minded distance — as if straying from their preferred political brands would amount to coronavirus surrender.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont delivered a stern address about our national ills in front of well-placed flags in a Vermont hotel Friday, instead of a stern address about our national ills in front of well-placed Ohioans or Floridians, talking up “Medicare for All” and polling support for his health care vision.
President Donald Trump, confined to the Rose Garden a short while later, conducted a news conference heavy on characteristic self-congratulation, periodic misrepresentation and medically incautious handshakes.
And hours after that, former Vice President Joe Biden held a cellphone to his lips and squinted into a camera inside an antiseptic room in one state (Delaware) bearing the flag from another (Illinois).
He asked if he was live during this “virtual town hall.” He turned to wander the space a little, as he often does onstage, restraining himself enough to stay in the shot. He nodded at his long-windedness (“I’ve already probably said too much”) and an uneven performance that, this time, was not his fault.
“I’m sorry this has been such a disjointed effort,” Biden said, alluding to a series of tech failures during the session, “because of the connections.”
They are complicated these days — for candidates, for voters, for socially-distanced Americans of all kinds. And as the presidential campaign moves uneasily through a new phase of non-contact and limited travel, the wider political world has already grown acutely aware of what it is losing.
Politics happens in person, traditionally, and despite more recent feats of digital fundraising and advertising, the smartphone era has been no exception. The selfies splashed across social media were taken in person. The stories that candidates tell about the good men and women of the state they just came from are generally contingent on meeting those good men and women in person. Even a well-cut commercial, mining footage of a contender firing up his charges, tends to rely on that firing-up happening in person.
So, what now? What next? Who can be expected to tele-energize a coalition? Empathize viscerally by video conference? Move the masses consistent with best practices for virus transmission avoidance?
“We are still largely people who need that sort of human element to it,” said Karen Finney, a longtime Democratic strategist who has advised Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams. “There is nothing that replaces in-person events.”
The premier in-person event in democracy, historically — voting itself — has also been scrambled. Two states, Louisiana and Georgia, are postponing their primaries amid virus concerns. Others, including Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona, plan to go forward with their elections this week.
But for the candidates competing in those contests, confinement to a campaign livestream is a significant impediment.
The past four presidents, for their many differences, all distinguished themselves with an ability to excel in a room, through soaring speechmaking (Barack Obama), rampaging rally (Trump) or a talent for insta-connections with voters in smaller, unrehearsed settings (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush).
Certainly all three major 2020 candidates are being stripped of some signal political strengths during the hiatus. Trump’s events are something akin to oxygen for him, rousing his base and supplying the live-action feedback and adulation he craves.
Biden’s best moments often come on the voter rope-line after he leaves the lectern, showcasing his empathy and charm — and his eagerness to shake hands, shoulders, anything in range — more effectively than his public remarks tend to. (Other flourishes, like his recent profanity-specked exchange with a man in Michigan, who suggested Biden wanted to confiscate guns, can also flow from these interactions, for better or worse.)
The Sanders campaign has been perhaps the nimblest and most experienced with virtual gatherings and social media-driven events long before the outbreak, powered in part by the youth and tech savvy of the senator’s core supporters. But Sanders is now nonetheless robbed of a crucial data point as he lags Biden in delegates: the zeal and attendance at his rallies, which allies hold up as evidence that his revolution is resonating widely, even if the primary results have not always agreed.
“We do more rallies, I think, than anybody else,” Sanders told reporters Friday. “They’re often very well-attended. I love to do them.”
While the virus-mandated restrictions were “hurting,” Sanders said, the senator spoke highly of the campaign’s “internet capabilities.” “We livestream everything we do,” he said. “I think we’re probably livestreaming this.”
He was. And the next night, at a “fireside chat” (actual fire included) inside Sanders’ Burlington home, he did it again, drawing an audience of more than 100,000, according to his campaign.
“Campaigning in the era of coronavirus,” Faiz Shakir, his campaign manager, said, moderating questions during the forum. Shakir added that there were plans for a rally-type event “with some music” in the coming days.
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, announced a kind of nesting-doll viewing experience for Sunday evening: a “Women for Biden Virtual Debate Watch Party” during which voters would be invited, it seemed, to watch the debate while watching Jill Biden watch her husband in the debate.
If nothing else, the virus disruption has arrived at a time when the Democratic race has just two leading candidates, both of whom are widely known. With Biden pulling away from Sanders in the delegate count, some Democrats had expected the pace of retail campaigning to slow a bit anyway in the coming weeks and months.
“We are down to two very well-known, very well-defined individuals who’ve been around for a long time,” said Meredith Kelly, a former communications director for the presidential campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I actually think it has less impact on a presidential race than it might on a congressional primary, where the candidates are truly unknown.”
Already, though, political veterans have grown nostalgic. Online events would appear less fertile ground for serendipitous run-ins and unscripted challenges of all shades. Finney, the former Clinton campaign adviser, fondly recalled one recent example: Jill Biden fending off a protester from the stage during Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday victory speech.
“It’s the sort of spontaneity of an in-person event, right?” Finney said wistfully.
Jill Biden’s virtual debate party was less likely to feature physical combat. But protesters interrupting the proceedings should have been of little concern to the candidates anyway.
They were squaring off without a live audience, as public health demanded.