Candidates typically play starring roles in US presidential campaigns. Their pursuit of the White House takes place in full view of the public – at rallies, and on TV and social media – as they endeavour to charm, persuade and convince the nation to vote for them.
But this is not a typical election season. Rather than strutting on the US’s greatest electoral stage, Joe Biden, the former vice-president and presumptive Democratic nominee, has been almost entirely absent from it. Except for TV interviews and hosting virtual events online, the Biden campaign is a faint presence in US political life.
This has little to do with Biden himself, who is comfortable with presidential campaigning, having already done so in 1988 and 2008. The former senator for Delaware failed in both those attempts to secure the Democratic nomination. He failed not because of an unconventional campaign style but first because of a plagiarism scandal (Biden was accused of copying a speech by the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock) and later because of the superior strategy and charisma of Barack Obama.
Biden’s inner circle, a squad of veteran operatives such as Kate Bedingfield and Chris Dodd, either hail from the Obama/Biden administration, or have known Biden for years. They would certainly have been planning to run a more typical campaign of rallies, speeches, debates, attack ads and countrywide grip-and-grins. Yet none of this has really happened.
The reason why is that we are at an unprecedented conjuncture in the history of the US. The country is in the midst of a pandemic, a grim reality to which every political conversation returns, while Donald Trump is an aberrant and unpredictable force as both incumbent and campaigner.
In a typical campaign, Biden would be making big, attention-grabbing public appearances, and journalists would pore over his statements on policy and assess whether he could work a crowd as effectively as Trump. Instead, and to his credit, Biden has taken the advice of public health officials and ruled out holding large public events. He’s not even travelling to Wisconsin for the Democratic National Convention, which is due to take place from 17 August.
Biden’s errors would also be newsworthy under normal campaign conditions. He is famously gaffe-prone and has made some ill-advised remarks recently, such as telling the radio presenter Charlamagne tha God: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” In another interview he claimed that “unlike the African-American community (with notable exceptions), the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things”. These are sentiments that a candidate who needs to inspire black American turnout and win black American votes should not express.
Biden’s howlers were covered by the press, and perhaps they will influence voting on 3 November. But they have hardly grabbed the public’s attention. How could they? In a pandemic, as the daily death toll rises, a day feels like a week and a week feels like an entire presidential cycle.
Biden is out of sight and out of mind. The low profile of his campaign is in sharp contrast to that of Trump’s.
On 3 August the public was treated to a remarkable interview broadcast on HBO, in which Trump asserted that his administration was doing an “incredible job” responding to coronavirus. Later that week the president called into Fox & Friends and offered the baseless conspiracy theory that the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros was providing funding for Antifa (anti-fascist) protesters.
In recent days, Trump has also fulminated against Congress over a pandemic relief aid package (he has now signed an executive order to provide aid to millions of Americans, even though Congress controls federal spending), and launched daily broadsides at the press for spreading “fake news” about the importance of wearing face masks.
The story of American politics today is not the race for the White House: it is Trump’s lethal incompetence in protecting US citizens from the pandemic. This is the reason for Biden’s near-invisibility.
In the polls, however, Biden is ahead. He leads Trump nationally, as well as in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where people think he would do a better job of controlling the pandemic than Trump. Biden is ahead in Michigan, and Ohio (though only by two points in the latter, according to a recent poll). These states, or part of them, belong to the Rust Belt, the area of north-east America that has experienced rapid industrial decline since the 1980s.
This is supposed to be Trump’s base. But according to new polls, the voters of these areas are deeply concerned about the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
It is possible that a campaign marked by his absence actually helps Biden. Not only does less time in the spotlight reduce the chances of his blundering on camera, and saying something that goes down poorly with the public. But being mostly out of the public mind also strangely reinforces Biden’s appeal for the nation: he offers the prospect of a president who does not demand our constant attention.
There is a reason that some of the most memorable Democratic campaign ads of the past few weeks have been composed of Trump’s words alone. After four years of egomania, Americans want a head of state in the background, working and fixing things. So long as Biden remains off stage, the public can imagine him as someone who will embody that style of leadership. Joe Biden’s absence may be more presidential than Donald Trump’s presence.