As election nears, Trump and Biden are campaigning again. Sort of.

Why We Wrote This

Both campaigns are trying to chart their way back to “normal” as they head toward conventions in August. But this political season is still being shaped by the pandemic and the protests.

Matt Slocum/AP
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks June 17, 2020, in Darby, Pennsylvania.

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After a break from formal campaigning, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are ramping up their in-person events for the first time since the pandemic began. President Trump took the stage Saturday night for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Days earlier, Mr. Biden spoke to local officials and business owners in Darby, Pennsylvania, all wearing masks and spaced across the floor.

Tuesday, Mr. Trump headed to Yuma, Arizona, to visit a newly-completed stretch of the border wall before delivering remarks to students in Phoenix. Mr. Biden, meanwhile, was set to hold a virtual fundraiser with former President Barack Obama.

The candidates’ reemergence reflects their contrasting styles – Mr. Trump has always fed off the energy of crowds, while Mr. Biden tends toward face-to-face interactions – as well as the concerns of their voters, particularly when it comes to COVID-19. More broadly, it is reinforcing how far from “normal” this political season is proving to be.

“So far, this is not unfolding like a traditional campaign,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont. “Like all things in the age of the coronavirus, this is uncharted territory.”

After a break from formal campaigning, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have hit the trail again. But judging by recent appearances, politics as usual remain a long way off.

Both candidates are ramping up their schedule of in-person events for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic put a hold on mass gatherings. President Trump took the stage Saturday night for one of his signature rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a smaller-than-expected crowd. Attendees had their temperatures checked upon entry and were offered face masks, although many did not wear them. 

Three days earlier in Darby, Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden spoke to an invitation-only room of about two dozen local officials, business owners, and reporters, all wearing masks and sitting within designated white circles spaced across the floor.

Tuesday offers its own side-by-side comparison, with Mr. Trump traveling to Yuma, Arizona, to visit a newly-completed stretch of the border wall before delivering remarks to a group of students in Phoenix. Mr. Biden, meanwhile, was set to hold a virtual fundraiser with former President Barack Obama, the first official 2020 event Mr. Obama has hosted for his onetime VP.

The candidates’ reemergence reflects their contrasting styles – President Trump has always fed off the energy of crowds, while Mr. Biden tends toward smaller events and face-to-face interactions – as well as the concerns and priorities of their voters, particularly when it comes to COVID-19.

More broadly, it is reinforcing the extent to which the campaign, in both form and substance, is likely to continue to be shaped by the pandemic and the turmoil over racial justice. Indeed, with less the two months before the parties are scheduled to hold their summer conventions, the only predictable aspect to the 2020 campaign is how far from “normal” this political season is proving to be.

“So far, this is not unfolding like a traditional campaign,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont. “Like all things in the age of the coronavirus, this is uncharted territory.”

Uncertainty surrounding conventions

The upcoming conventions offer a clear contrast between the candidates’ approaches to COVID-19 precautions, as well as the differing partisan perspectives on the issue even as cases spike in two dozen states.

Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee pushed back the date of its convention in Milwaukee from July to August. The party chair currently says he is unsure of attendance size, and many are speculating that at least part of the convention will take place online.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, recently moved the main events for the Republican National Convention in August from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, after failing to come to an agreement with North Carolina’s Democratic governor about how to handle large in-person gatherings.

If the rally in Tulsa was any indication, the president’s goal of a traditional convention may be easier said than done.

Ian Maule/Tulsa World/AP
President Donald Trump walks toward the stage while supporters cheer during his campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 20, 2020.

Despite the president’s claim that almost 1 million people requested tickets to the Tulsa event, large sections of the 19,000-seat BOK Center remained empty. (The city’s fire department estimated that fewer than 6,200 people attended the event, while the Trump campaign said 12,000 attended.) Before Mr. Trump took the podium Saturday evening for an almost two-hour-long rambling speech, his team broke down an outdoor stage that had been created for an overflow crowd that never materialized.

Some users of TikTok, a social media app that shares short videos, claimed credit for the lower-than-expected turnout in Tulsa, after videos calling for Trump opponents to register for the event and not attend went viral. The Trump campaign, for its part, blamed protesters – whose anticipated presence, they said, discouraged many older Trump supporters and those with young children from attending. Media reports suggested the actual number of protestors was relatively low.

Of course, it’s still notable that Mr. Trump was able to draw thousands of supporters in person during a pandemic. “There is no comparison between the Darby and Tulsa events. [Mr. Biden’s event] looks like an elementary school cafeteria, compared to the massive arenas that Trump has filled and will continue to fill,” says Tricia Hope, a rally attendee and real estate agent from Houston, who spoke to the Monitor by phone after the rally.

Nevertheless, concerns about a massive indoor rally in a state with rising COVID-19 cases might have kept some supporters away; the Trump campaign’s efforts to hype the attendance numbers in advance may have worked against them in that regard. And that’s a challenge that may well persist, as the virus currently is on the uptick in a number of states where the president is expected to campaign, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina.

After the Tulsa rally, the campaign revealed that two members of its advance team, who had attended the indoor event, tested positive for the virus. Six other advance team workers had tested positive before the rally.

Still, Randall Thom, a Trump supporter from Minnesota who has attended 64 rallies including the event in Tulsa, argues that if anything the safety precautions in Tulsa were too strict, complicating the entry process.

“Having the rallies is not a bad thing – we have to get back to normal, and not the new normal that is being pushed down our throats as Americans,” writes Mr. Thom in a text message. “I am not afraid of the virus. I am afraid that if Biden gets elected my freedom and liberty will be taken.”

Advantage Biden (for now)

Mr. Trump isn’t the only one struggling to chart a way back to normal. Mr. Biden has also found himself campaigning under restrictive conditions that are in some ways ill-suited to his strengths.

Current polls, however, suggest Mr. Biden is in a strong position. A Fox News poll from mid-June has Mr. Biden ahead by 12 points nationally, and recent surveys from critical swing states such as Michigan, Florida, and Wisconsin also show Mr. Biden ahead. While the president has a substantial financial advantage over his Democratic opponent, Mr. Biden out-raised Mr. Trump in the month of May, bringing in almost $81 million to the president’s $74 million.

“In this instance, you don’t have to boil the ocean. It’s about campaigning in a thoughtful way that activates your voters and persuades independents to consider voting for you,” says Scott Mulhauser, a political communications expert and former deputy chief of staff for Mr. Biden during the 2012 election. “You’re not competing for a total number of Twitter followers, you’re competing for electoral votes.”

When campaigning against an unpopular incumbent (Mr. Trump’s average approval rating over the past four years of 40% puts him 13 points below the average president), the longstanding political wisdom for a challenger has always been to get out of the way, says Alvin Tillery, director of Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.

“Journalists, pundits, and Twitterati want to talk about Biden’s virtual campaign not being visible enough,” says Mr. Tillery. “But why have the normal rules of politics changed just because it’s online?”

Indeed, the restricted 2020 campaign may actually be benefiting the gaffe-prone Mr. Biden, who often struggles speaking off the cuff – and who, throughout the Democratic primary season, rarely drew large crowds.

“At the end of the day, think about the optics of Biden barely being able to fill a small reception hall,” says Rachel Bitcofer, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. “For Biden, the less visible he is, probably the better.”

Fewer than 2,500 people were watching, for example, when Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett introduced Mr. Biden for a virtual Wisconsin “rally” in late May. To close out the event, Mr. Biden passed the proverbial mic to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who was sitting in front of a white wall with a Biden logo crookedly taped to the left of her head.

“You have more Trump supporters engaging with campaign staff [and surrogates] than you have Biden supporters engaging with the actual candidate,” says Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist and director of the Center for Campaign Innovation, referring to virtual events with Mr. Trump’s family and advisors.

Mr. Biden’s relative seclusion has seemed to frustrate the Trump campaign. This week, campaign manager Brad Parscale challenged the Biden team to four presidential debates instead of three.

“It is now established that Joe Biden prefers campaigning from the comfort of his basement,” Tim Murtaugh, Mr. Trump’s campaign communications director, wrote in a press release Tuesday.

Mismatched campaigns

This isn’t the first time in U.S. history that the presidential race has had a notable mismatch in approaches to campaigning, says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

In 1896, Republican William McKinley ran a “front porch campaign” largely from his home in Ohio – then the norm for presidential candidates – while his opponent, Democrat William Jennings Bryan, traveled the country making some 600 speeches. Mr. Bryan lost, but following the turn of the 20th century, his strategy of in-person campaigning became the norm.

“It became about wanting to relate to the people directly,” says Ms. Perry. “But since then, every now and again, we have an outlier.”

More recently, in 1980, Democratic President Jimmy Carter felt it would be distasteful to travel the country amid the Iranian hostage crisis, and largely ran his reelection campaign from the White House Rose Garden. His opponent, Republican Ronald Reagan, won in a landslide.

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