With traditional campaigning on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, White House hopeful Joe Biden has turned to boosting his digital operations. – AFP/VNA Photo
WASHINGTON – Joe Biden is rapidly scaling up his digital campaign as he scrambles to compete with Donald Trump's formidable online operation, but Democrats say the presidential hopeful must move beyond flat speeches delivered from his basement.
The Democratic Party's presumptive nominee is doubling the size of his digital team – currently at a reported 25 people – and his campaign said on Monday it is launching a flood-the-zone approach across multiple online platforms.
But with November's election less than six months away and traditional campaigning halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden is in an awkward spot.
While Biden talks into a camera in an empty basement studio in Delaware where he is under stay-at-home orders, Trump is center-stage, acting – successfully or not – to address the crisis and reopen the shuttered economy.
The contrast was driven home last week when Biden's virtual rally in Florida was marred by technical glitches.
Some Democratic campaign experts have described Biden's basement tapes as too static and packaged.
Strategists have openly worried that Biden is already dangerously behind Trump on key metrics across platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
The 77-year-old former vice president will need to rapidly adjust to new political realities if he is to compete with a president whose data-mining and voter targeting operations are vast.
The 2020 election is "a battle for the soul of this nation," Biden likes to say.
"But it's also a battle for the soul of the internet. And it's a battle we intend to win," Biden's digital director Rob Flaherty tweeted Saturday as he announced several new hires.
They include senior digital advisor Caitlin Mitchell, a former top staffer for Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign.
Trump's online effort has been fire and brimstone since Day 1. Last week, campaign chair Brad Parscale likened Trump's organised digital campaign to attacks by the "Death Star" from Star Wars.
Biden's campaign argues that Biden reflects Americans' desire for a leader with skills and experience to get the job done.
The message? "He's ready to lead in a moment of crisis like this, and that he has the compassion and empathy that Trump has been sorely lacking," Biden deputy rapid response director Mike Gwin said.
Just how Biden gets that message out may be the campaign's defining question.
"Online speeches from his basement won't cut it," warned Barack Obama campaign veterans David Axelrod and David Plouffe in a recent New York Times essay.
"In order to break through and be heard, (Biden) will have to up the tempo of his campaign, fully utilise his army of powerful surrogates and embrace a new suite of virtual, data-driven tools and creative tactics."
The campaign argues it is on its way, with Biden videos, ads or events viewed online 112 million times since mid-March.
Democratic strategist Lis Smith said Biden must master the digital genre.
"There was a conventional wisdom for a long time that Joe Biden was screwed because he was stuck in the basement" during coronavirus, Smith said in a Politico webcast Monday.
Instead, with the collapse of traditional campaigning, being forced to go digital "could be the best thing that has happed to Joe Biden."
Recent polls show Biden leading Trump. But "we can't rest on our laurels here," Smith said.
An efficient operation can get Biden's word out to voters through various media: virtual town halls, local television interviews in swing states like Wisconsin, targeted online rallies.
But Trump's staggering digital following dwarfs that of Biden, who will need to embrace Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat in order to compete.
Digital strategist Lori Coleman of grassroots group DemCast said she is "extremely concerned" about Biden's late online start but he could still recover.
"Before coronavirus, traditional campaigning was going to be really good for Joe and I don't think that they were really well positioned to switch to more of a digital campaign," Coleman said.
"I know that they have been working diligently on developing that. It's definitely going to be needed."
Digital infrastructure group Acronym says Trump's campaign has spent $55.9 million on Facebook and Google advertising since 2018, while Biden's has spent $19.6 million on those platforms since launching last year.
Biden has nevertheless pulled in hefty donations, including an eye-popping $60.5 million in April, his campaign said. AFP