Campaigning during a pandemic, Biden and Trump lead by example — 2 opposite examples

David Knowles
·Editor
·6 min read

In the homestretch of a presidential campaign in the shadow of a once-in-a-century pandemic, Joe Biden has adopted a strategy that would be unthinkable for a candidate in any ordinary year: He’s largely forgoing big campaign rallies.

While President Trump has been barnstorming swing states, showing off his own recovery from the coronavirus at mass rallies that appear to have left a surge of cases in their wake, Biden has taken a very different approach. When it comes to the pandemic that is worsening by the day, Biden has decided to lead by example.

On Monday he emphasized that point, releasing an ad that seized on an admission made by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that “we’re not going to control the pandemic.”

“They’ve given up on protecting you,” the ad states, as new cases of the coronavirus have surged in recent weeks across 37 states, infecting a record 481,000 more Americans over the past seven days.

In contrast to Trump, who has portrayed the country as “rounding the curve” on the pandemic, Biden’s messaging since last week’s final debate has been far more gloomy.

“This is [a] dark winter ahead,” Biden said Friday in his latest speech, delivered in Wilmington, Del., in which he laid out his plan to prevail over the pandemic. “Already more than 220,000 people in the United States of America have lost their lives to this virus, 220,000 empty chairs at the dinner tables all across this country. My heart goes out to every single person who has had to endure the agony of saying goodbye to someone they loved and adored over a video chat, who couldn’t gather their close friends, even their family, to grieve together at a funeral Mass or a funeral service.”

TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Drive-In event with Bon Jovi at Dallas High School, Pennsylvania, on October 24, 2020. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at a drive-in event with Jon Bon Jovi in Dallas, Pa., on Oct. 24. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

As the death toll from the virus topped 225,000 Americans, Biden has made sure to be seen wearing a face mask. He arrived onstage at Thursday’s debate in Nashville wearing a mask that he removed once behind his lectern, holding it up to emphasize the importance of masks in slowing the virus’s spread. During Friday’s speech, he hammered home the need for nationwide measures mandating face coverings.

“I’ll go to every governor and urge them to mandate mask wearing in their states, and if they refuse, I’ll go to the mayors and county executives and get local mask requirements in place nationwide,” Biden said.

Instead of large campaign rallies, Biden, citing the need to avoid worsening the pandemic, has kept personal appearances in public to a minimum. He has given speeches in parking lots, where supporters listen to him from inside their cars. Unlike Trump, he doesn’t sign baseball hats or T-shirts and toss them back into the crowd. Every movement on the trail for Biden seems designed to impart the seriousness of the pandemic, while Trump has done the opposite.

Campaigning on Saturday in Bristol Township, Pa., Biden noted a handful of hecklers and drew a distinction between his supporters and those of the president.

“We don’t do things like those chumps out there with the microphone are doing, those Trump guys,” Biden said. “It’s about decency. Look, we’ve got to come together.”

Though Biden has announced he would travel to Iowa, Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida this week, Trump, who often portrays his own recovery from COVID-19 as signaling his own strength, continues to hammer Biden for avoiding the campaign trail.

“He’s locked in his basement; they put the lid on. The lid on the garbage can,” Trump said Monday in Lititz, Pa., adding, “He’s leaving to make a speech. In Delaware, that’s where he always does it, about three minutes from his house.”

Biden has maintained a fairly consistent lead in most polls — up to 12 points in the latest Yahoo News/YouGov survey — and many votes have already been cast, so Trump’s last-minute blitz of large rallies might not work as well as it did in 2016.

LITITZ, PA - OCTOBER 26: President Donald Trump dances to the song YMCA after speaking at a rally on October 26, 2020 in Lititz, Pennsylvania.  With 8 days to go before the election, Trump is today holding 3 rallies across Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state.  In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast, the first Republican to carry the Keystone State since 1988. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
President Trump dances to the song "YMCA" after speaking at a rally in Lititz, Pa., on Monday. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

“You heard him the other night: ‘It’s going to be a dark winter,’” Trump told his crowd in Lititz. “No, it’s not going to be a dark winter. It’s going to be a great winter, it’s going to be a great spring.”

Undercutting that message, however, is the drumbeat of new COVID-19 cases in states across the country. Over the past 14 days, the number of Americans testing positive for the disease is up 32 percent. Deaths from COVID-19 are up 12 percent. Hospitalizations due to the virus are up 40 percent since September.

Those statistics have guided how Biden has run his campaign, a point that has been made by his most charismatic surrogate, former President Barack Obama.

“Eight months into this pandemic, new cases are breaking records,” Obama said at a drive-in rally on Saturday in Miami. “Donald Trump isn’t going to suddenly protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself.”

In a campaign that has played out like no other in American history, the divergent messages from the two candidates feel more like alternate realities. That includes the question of whether holding campaign rallies in the final days of an election is itself, as an electoral strategy, a wise decision. But when it comes to protecting Americans, let alone the candidates themselves, the evidence is much clearer that it is not.

To hear Trump tell it, Biden is setting the wrong example.

“If he loses, he should be ashamed of himself because he didn’t work,” Trump said Monday in Pennsylvania.

Biden, however, is ready to live with his decision that a pandemic requires a different kind of campaign approach.

At a town hall hosted by ABC News, he was asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos, “If you lose, what will that say to you about where America is today?”

In a moment of candor, Biden seemed to acknowledge that his strategy of avoiding large rallies carried risks.

“Well, it could say that I’m a lousy candidate, and I didn’t do a good job,” he responded.

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