The months Vice President Joe Biden spent in his basement were good ones for his campaign. From March 10, the day Biden retreated to his recreation room-turned-broadcast center, until May 26, when he and his wife emerged to attend a Memorial Day service, Biden’s lead over incumbent Republican President Donald Trump in public polling swelled.
Since then, Biden hasn’t exactly started criss-crossing the country. All of his public events in recent weeks have been in the Philadelphia metro area, and he flew to Houston to meet privately with the family of George Floyd. And in that time, which coincided with Trump’s near-constant delivery of divisive rhetoric about the death of George Floyd, racism and police brutality, Biden’s lead has grown even more.
This trend has led to a loose conventional wisdom that Biden should continue to shun the spotlight. After all, Biden has a penchant for gaffes or cringe-worthy lines, and campaign officials have long said a straight-up referendum on Trump is a race they win ― an idea many Republican strategists agree with.
“People say all the time, ‘Oh, we got to get the vice president out of the basement,’” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Biden ally and advisor, told a group of Democrats in footage obtained by Fox News. “He’s fine in the basement. Two people see him a day: his two body people. That’s it. Let Trump keep doing what Trump’s doing.”
Biden’s team and other Democrats, however, are increasingly battling for more news coverage of the former vice president. While Biden’s lead in public polling is substantial ― essentially every political forecaster of note believes Biden is a heavy favorite to win the presidency at the moment ― he still has weaknesses that can’t be solved by simply sitting back and hoping Trump’s racism and lack of interest in battling the coronavirus continue to alienate swing voters.
A CNN poll earlier this week that showed Biden with an enormous lead over Trump also found that a significant majority of his supporters, 60%, were backing Biden primarily as a way to vote against Trump. By comparison, 70% of the Trump backers said they were voting mostly as a way to support the president.
So while Biden’s dominance among swing voters has given him a formidable lead, the lack of enthusiasm for the Democrat ― especially among young, progressive and Latino voters ― could dog him if that dominant position weakens in the fall. And while Biden has moved to the left on a host of issues, including student debt, and will unveil a plan for Latinos soon, it’s difficult for his campaign to fix its enthusiasm problems without voters hearing from him directly.
Guy Cecil, the chair of Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, downplayed Biden’s enthusiasm problems, pointing out that Trump was able to win in 2016 even though most of his supporters said they were primarily casting ballots against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But he was also pleased that Biden had adopted a more active posture.
“What you’re starting to see over the last week is an increasingly public Biden campaign, the vice president himself getting out there more ... and more public activities,” Cecil told reporters during a briefing earlier this week, noting the Biden campaign had dramatically increased its spending on Facebook. (In the past week, Biden has spent $2.6 million on the platform, more than twice what the Trump campaign has spent.)
The Biden team argues that the vice president has never been as absent as some of his critics claim; he’s participated in more than 50 television interviews since the start of the pandemic. But Biden’s increased activity doesn’t mean much if voters don’t see it, and campaign staffers are often frustrated by the lack of coverage many of the vice president’s events receive, especially when a stray Trump utterance while waiting for Marine One can drive a news cycle.
“There are two candidates running for president of the United States, and they both deserve to make their case to the American people,” said T.J. Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesman. “We’re not piloting a mini-series here. This is about our country’s future.”
Essentially, Democrats and the Biden campaign are arguing that news organizations allowing Trump to dominate coverage are putting a thumb on the scale in the same way they did in 2016, when Trump won the GOP nomination on the back of $2 billion’s worth of earned media.
“In 2016, the networks greatly advantaged Trump with billions of dollars worth of free airtime, and that’s a large part of why he was elected. There’s been no reckoning since,” said Eric Schultz, a former White House spokesman and an adviser to former President Barack Obama. “There’s been no sign of soul-searching ever since. Executives have been clear that he’s good for business, that he’s good for profits.”
Behind the scenes, the Biden campaign has been pushing the cable news networks to take him live more frequently, and for nightly network newscasts to increase coverage of his events after-the-fact, with mixed results. Earlier this month, Biden gave a speech on race, which was heavily covered, but most of his subsequent events have gotten little live coverage.
The Thursday rollout of a plan to reopen the economy, which included provisions to guarantee coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment for workers and the creation of a workforce of 100,000 contract tracers, did little to drive the news cycle.
But two stray comments from Biden ― questioning whether Trump would accept an election loss during an interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show,” and calling the president’s coronavirus failures “almost criminal” during a tele-town hall with members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ― picked up some attention.
Republicans have reacted to Biden’s push for more media coverage with at least a facade of glee, reflecting how Biden’s increasing visibility will almost certainly generate more moments for the Republican National Committee to clip and blast out on Twitter.
“We formally join Joe Biden’s campaign in their call for the national news media, particularly cable and broadcast television outlets, to carry Biden’s remarks and unscripted events in their entirety,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. “The failure to expose the American people to these rambling displays of incoherence, ineptitude, and forgetfulness is depriving voters of a clear picture of Biden’s inability to execute the duties of the office he seeks. Stop protecting Biden. Air the events.”
But so far, the GOP effort to turn Biden’s gaffes into real political damage has been as fruitless as the nearly-identical efforts undertaken by Biden’s Democratic rivals during the primary.