Joe Biden is a classic retail politician — a man who loves to shake hands, give hugs, take selfies and look voters directly in the eye, one-on-one. But now he can't do any of those things.
Instead, because of the coronavirus outbreak, his campaign is grounded: no rallies, no travel. It's all virtual fundraisers, live-streamed speeches, remote TV interviews, Facebook videos and volunteer Slack channels.
Behind the scenes, the former vice president spends hours a day on the phone with his public health advisory committee, fellow Democratic leaders and economic advisers, but the public-facing campaign is now exclusively a TV and digital operation.
The coronavirus outbreak has forced the 77-year-old Biden and his campaign to urgently reckon with a new reality in which the internet is the main campaign battlefield — a place where they have often been outdone by rivals, but where voters are currently very much a captive audience.
"The things that will make us successful now are the things that are gonna make us successful in the general. It just means that we need to do them faster," said Rob Flaherty, Biden's digital director.
Biden is not officially the Democratic nominee, but given his large delegate lead and the momentum from a string of major primary victories before voting was largely suspended, he is widely seen as the prohibitive front-runner.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has not conceded, and in fact maintains a robust digital operation through which he's given competing digital appearances in recent days.
Sanders is seen as a sort of pioneer in the world of campaign live streaming. Biden was a late adopter.
His first virtual town hall suffered a technical glitch preventing most people from watching it in real time. Then, last week, Biden was slow to reappear on camera after the March 17 primaries, doing no TV appearances and just one telephone press conference. The lack of visibility led to some mockery from Sanders supporters and frustration from some allies.
During a virtual fundraiser over the weekend, one donor asked: "What I'm concerned about is that we see Donald Trump every day with this crisis giving his press report. And I would just love to see you more. Like how do we get more of you and less of him on our airwaves?"
Biden's answer seemed apparent by Tuesday: multiple TV interviews all done through a new in-home studio installed in a rec room at his house in Delaware.
But unexpectedly scaling a full digital operation is no easy feat.
"I think the next weeks or months, however long it is, are going to be really challenging for every campaign," said Teddy Goff, digital director for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. "I also think there's a huge opportunity: Everyone in America is sitting in front of their device all day and all night."
The challenge, he says, is finding the right way to reach voters.
"People are going to have to figure out what time people are paying attention to, and what channels work best, and what are the tactics you can get to get people to tune in," he said.
Beyond the logistical details, Goff says there's another hurdle in this moment where everything is overshadowed by crisis: getting a message across. "People who are not in public office have to figure out how they can contribute effectively to the conversation, you know, give people news they can use," he said.
Biden's campaign is experimenting, trying to figure out how to recreate the feel of retail politics without the crowds. Over the weekend, the former vice president popped into a quarantine Instagram party hosted by DJ D-Nice.
Fighting on Trump's turf
The campaign sees Facebook as a friendly space. But that's also one of Donald Trump's preferred social media outlets. The president has far more followers, with 28 million on his page compared to roughly 1.7 million for Biden. A random Facebook video the president posts can easily receive half a million views.
But while Trump's videos might receive a lot of eyeballs, often drawn to provocative rhetoric, the Biden campaign believes its strength is empathy and explanation. It's taking cues from the unexpected success of a video from early January with Biden delivering remarks about Iran and Trump's actions in the region, which received over 600,000 views on Facebook.
The campaign also pointed to four of its videos in recent days that have over a million views on Twitter, including a COVID-19 explainer with Biden adviser and former Obama administration Ebola czar Ron Klain in front a white board — it's received over 4 million views.
Biden, not known for the massive crowds or internet success of Trump and Sanders, seems intrigued by the potential reach.
"The irony is — virtual campaigning — I'll probably reach more people than I would out there shaking hands," he said in an interview with ABC's The View on Tuesday morning.
A ground game, in the cloud
It's one thing for the candidate himself to continue campaigning, and another for his volunteers and organizers to build up a ground organization in key states when they're not allowed to physically knock on doors or meet in large groups.
Matthew Plourd, a freshman at New York University, is part of a student group supporting Biden. His organization had been planning on hosting a debate night watch party and canvassing New Yorkers in Washington Square Park. Since in-person classes have been cancelled, he's been at home in Connecticut trying to spread the word via his cellphone and coordinating with other members of the group Students for Biden.
"We have a national Slack that we all talk on that we're all fairly active on," said Plourd, referencing the messaging service also used by many businesses.
Plourd says the new environment is challenging, but he's actually seen social media engagement go up since students have been off campus, as internet traffic has surged across the board.
"You can attribute that to a lot of things, obviously people spending more time on the web while they're at home, bored," he said.
Many upcoming primaries are postponed, and so phone banking to get out the vote isn't an immediate concern. Volunteers still gather on the video platform Zoom or chat through messaging sites, such as Slack, as Plourd mentioned; but Biden's campaign views organizing in this moment as a way to create community more than fulfill an immediate campaign need.
Bringing voters together while apart
"Campaigns are very much social activities for a lot of people," said Paul Ruiz, a volunteer with the Biden campaign in Virginia. Prior to the virus outbreak, he held weekly phone banks and watch parties, but now he's had to move all of that over to virtual platforms.
This past weekend, he helped organize a remote phone bank via Zoom. Calling voters via a communal camera he admits can be "awkward," so it was less about the actual work of dialing numbers together and more about the camaraderie, recreating the casual side-conversations volunteers have when they're making calls in a room together.
"The purpose of the Zoom is really to bring everybody together and retain the social element of campaigns," said Ruiz. "This past weekend the conversation was on who should be Joe Biden's vice presidential pick."
Phone banking tools already exist online, and prior to the pandemic, people could already easily access the dial-in logistics from their own homes, but Ruiz says they often preferred to come to a phone-banking session so that they could talk to politically like-minded friends.
"Online organizing around this sense of building communities and getting those communities to take action, that was always going to be the plan," said Biden digital director Flaherty. "Now that people are home and looking for connection, it means we got to do that sooner."
In other words, they are beefing up a digital operation they would need for a general election, but they're doing it in a strange moment.
NOEL KING, HOST:
This pandemic is forcing Joe Biden to face an urgent reality. The Internet is now the most important part of the 2020 presidential campaign. And until this point, online strategy hasn't been Biden's strong suit. Here's NPR's Asma Khalid.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Joe Biden is a classic retail politician, a man who enjoys shaking hands, giving hugs and taking selfies. But now, because of the coronavirus, he can't do any of those things. Instead, it's virtual fundraisers, livestream speeches and remote TV interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")
JOE BIDEN: Well, the irony is, virtual campaigning, I'll probably reach more people than I would out there shaking hands.
KHALID: That was Biden earlier this week in an interview with ABC's "The View." The former vice president is not known to bring out the mega-crowds that greet Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, and so he seems intrigued by the reach of this new campaign style. But quickly scaling up a digital operation can be difficult. Teddy Goff was the digital director for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.
TEDDY GOFF: I think the next however many weeks or months it is are going to be really challenging for every campaign. I also think there's a huge opportunity, you know. Everyone in America is sitting in front of their device all day and all night.
KHALID: The challenge, Goff says, is finding the right way to reach voters - figuring out what time people want to tune in and what channel works best.
ROB FLAHERTY: The things that will make us successful now are, like, the things that are going to make us successful online in the general. It just means that we need to, like, do them faster (laughter).
KHALID: That's Rob Flaherty. He's Biden's digital director. The campaign sees Facebook as a friendly space. But that's also one of Donald Trump's preferred platforms. And the president has millions more followers than Biden. The other complication is that Biden is not yet the Democratic nominee. He does have the largest number of delegates, but Bernie Sanders has not conceded. And, in fact, the Vermont senator has his own robust digital operation. He's seen as a pioneer in the video livestream space. Biden, on the other hand, was a late adopter.
Still, it's one thing for a candidate to take his message totally online and another for volunteers and organizers to campaign on the ground when they're physically not allowed to knock on doors. Prior to the outbreak, Paul Ruiz used to hold weekly phone banks for Joe Biden with a bunch of volunteers packed into a room. This past weekend, he organized a remote phone bank through Zoom, a video conferencing platform.
PAUL RUIZ: Really, the purpose of the Zoom is to bring everybody together and retain sort of the social element of campaigns. I mean, campaigns are very much social activities for a lot of people.
KHALID: Ruiz admits that calling voters while on a video conference is awkward. So his phone bank was less about the actual work of dialing numbers and more about creating camaraderie between volunteers. Plus, he says, the tools already exist for a volunteer to dial or text voters from their own homes.
RUIZ: There is a increasing virtualization of campaigns that I think has blunted the impact of the pandemic issue.
KHALID: But even as modern campaigns have moved online in recent years, Ruiz says there's one essential ingredient in the campaign that has not changed. It's that physical, in-person aspect of campaigning.
RUIZ: There really is something to be said about getting together as a group and, for example, marching in a parade or knocking on doors with somebody.
KHALID: Ruiz says that kind of in-person engagement really connects with voters. But since that's not possible, Biden just announced an alternative way of connecting with people. He, too, is launching a podcast.
Asma Khalid, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHIGETO'S "A CHILD'S MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.