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Presidential Politics in Quarantine

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are running the nation’s first digital-only presidential campaigns

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Politico recently described Joe Biden’s hopeless struggle to “go viral” (in the digital sense). He beat Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, but now he struggles to relaunch his general election campaign against Donald Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, which has scattered campaign rallies to the winds and forced Democrats to postpone their nomination convention that was originally scheduled for July. The internet has been a foreboding place for Biden, even in the best of circumstances. His online presence peaked during Barack Obama’s presidency when Biden, then the vice president, humorously persisted as a meme. As a presidential candidate, Biden’s online campaign efforts pale in comparison to Sanders and Trump, not to mention Obama, who led the digital revolution in presidential campaigning more than a decade ago. Biden polls ahead of Trump by several points in most national polls, but he trails behind seemingly every other major figure in modern presidential politics in the digital proficiencies required to win a general election. Currently, Biden hosts a podcast and tapes TV interviews in his basement studio, the proverbial bunker into which he has, essentially, retreated. Meanwhile, Trump dominates TV and Twitter.


On Monday, The New York Times published an op-ed column from two of Obama’s former top strategists, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, assessing Biden’s most persistent tactical disadvantage against Trump. “For Mr. Biden,” Axelrod and Plouffe wrote, “the challenge is to transform a campaign that lagged behind many of his Democratic competitors during the primary in its use of digital media and timely, state-of-the-art communications techniques.” Two months ago, Biden’s advisors blamed poor lighting for the candidate’s reluctance to broadcast from his home while Sanders hosted “fireside chats” about the pandemic that he streamed on Twitch. “While television remains a potent force,” Axelrod and Plouffe continue, “YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are all essential in a COVID-19 world in which candidate travel and voter contact will be severely limited. In many respects, they are the campaign, not an important part of it.”


The global coronavirus pandemic is testing the hypermodern assumptions about whether social media, web tracking, and digital advertisements have rendered the old-fashioned, corporeal campaigns quaint, if not obsolete. Ironically, Biden, too, challenged popular notions about ground-level mobilization. After winning the South Carolina primary in February, Biden defeated Sanders in several states that he never visited while campaigning for the candidacy. Meanwhile, Trump eclipses Democrats in his spending on digital advertisements. His campaign’s outsized investment in Facebook—more than 300,000 microtargeted ads worth more than $30 million—has impressed strategists in both parties, including Axelrod and Plouffe. They characterize Trump’s reelection campaign manager, Brad Parscale, as the president’s digital savant and his most crucial advisor since Steve Bannon. Facebook’s microtargeting is sophisticated; Trump’s strategy is common sense. “Parscale sold them on the idea that he has a secret formula,” the Democratic strategist Charlie Rybak told The Atlantic, “but he’s really just launching thousands of ads and spending millions of dollars, which would work for anyone that had the resources to do it.” Biden has spent $13 million on Facebook ads in a competitive, yearlong primary; Trump has already spent three times as much for his general election campaign. The Biden campaign’s digital advertising outlay is less than not only Trump’s, but also his former Democratic contenders like Sanders, Mike Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer.

The limitations imposed by the pandemic inhibit both Trump’s and Biden’s campaigns. Two weeks ago, Trump encouraged the protests against the coronavirus countermeasures imposed by governors (Democratic ones, in particular) in several states, including Michigan, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey. In some ways, these protests have taken the place of the MAGA rallies, which Trump was forced to discontinue. Trump and his supporters recognize them as crucial, corporeal spectacles that bolster Trump’s confidence even as his disapproval ratings prove his broader unpopularity. Trump may be running the most sophisticated and/or expensive digital ad strategy in presidential politics, but he’s nothing without his rallies. Sanders, too, struggled to plot his potential comeback after a resounding defeat to Biden on Super Tuesday; he eventually suspended his campaign, which was spectacularly defined by its digital savvy, but also its massive crowds and its far-flung canvassers on the ground. Neither Biden nor Trump have fully mapped the final frontier in modern presidential campaigning. The coronavirus lockdowns, and the many digital contingencies necessary to maintain a presidential campaign, reveal a rough and underdeveloped terrain that still bears the old disclaimer: The internet is not real life.