Biden Has an Edge on Trump. So Why Are Democrats Worried?

May 14, 2020

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In his first weeks as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden went days at a time with no public events. His campaign staff in early April was about half the size of Hillary Clinton’s at the same time in 2016. A much-touted virtual rally last week was riddled with glitches. And Biden and his advisers remain stuck at home, uncertain if their Philadelphia headquarters will ever reopen.

Less than six months before Election Day, Biden finds himself in an extraordinary position: Party leaders have quickly united around him, and he has an edge over President Donald Trump in most polls. But he has yet to prove himself as a formidable nominee who can set the political and policy agenda for Democrats and the nation, and his campaign has so far not solved the unprecedented challenges of running for the White House from the seclusion of his home.

Biden’s inability to influence the debate about the coronavirus and the nation’s economic collapse has worried some Democratic allies, donors and former Obama administration officials who want Biden to be more visible. He rarely goes on offense against Trump in ways that have lasting impact. And his tentative handling of his biggest test recently — responding to the sexual assault allegation by Tara Reade — prompted skepticism among some progressives and others about his instincts and his team’s agility.

Trump has his own enormous problems politically, and he and his campaign have yet to get a handle on Biden, veering from attacks over China to personal jabs at his mental acuity and his son Hunter. Still, even some Democrats who are optimistic about Biden’s chances say they are worried about whether he and his operation are ready for the campaign of personal destruction that Trump is expected to accelerate.

The circumstances could hardly be more difficult for Biden. He lacks Trump’s bully pulpit, and the coronavirus crisis has eliminated the kind of intimate retail politicking at which he excels. But interviews with more than two dozen donors, advisers, activists and party strategists paint a portrait of an operation that is also exhibiting some of the same difficulties that proved troublesome in the primary: slow decision-making processes and multiple power centers across Biden’s sprawling political network, generational differences between some longtime Biden advisers and younger operatives, inadequate staffing and a tendency to be reactive in the face of controversy.

“Whatever hard hits you took in the primary does not even compare to what’s coming from this White House and this president,” said Leah D. Daughtry, a prominent Democratic strategist who ran the party’s 2008 and 2016 conventions. “We’ve just got to be ready for the new tactics and to not rely on anything we’ve done in the past as the gospel truth of campaigning.”

Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, who supported former Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the primary and backs Biden now, said she is hearing about Trump “fatigue” in her battleground state, but she was quick to note: “We got beat four years ago. None of this is rational anymore.”

In recent days, the Biden campaign has started its biggest hiring spree since entering the race, fortifying the thin team that carried him through the primaries with additions ranging from new deputy campaign managers to digital experts. But that hiring began weeks later than many party strategists had expected, curtailed by financial concerns and uncertainty over how to invest in a campaign grounded by a national health crisis.

And despite facing the most forbidding political environment of any president seeking reelection in decades, Trump still enjoys significant advantages. Although Biden matched the president in fundraising for April, Trump and his party began the general election with an advantage of nearly $187 million and an advanced digital operation. Already, Trump’s reelection team is directing a $10 million ad campaign at attacking Biden.

Biden’s campaign does not have the financial firepower to answer on air, but this week it did produce an anti-Trump ad on the coronavirus that quickly racked up millions of views, the kind of insurgent maneuver that allies had been anxiously waiting for.

In many respects, Biden’s candidacy continues to test the proposition that in an election dominated by the coronavirus and Trump’s conduct as president, the former vice president can win by running a steady, low-key campaign that appeals to a broad coalition. Democratic voters rewarded Biden for that approach in the primary, despite his uneven performances on the campaign trail, but a general election may test Biden and his campaign in a more strenuous way as he faces a wider audience of voters across the ideological spectrum.

Some of the Biden campaign’s vulnerabilities were laid bare in recent weeks as he confronted an accusation of sexual assault by Reade, a former aide in his Senate office in the 1990s. After the allegation surfaced, his campaign weighed several approaches, with some arguing that it should not be elevated. Others wanted a more proactive posture.

Biden waited more than five weeks to address the matter directly, personally issuing a forceful denial only after a chorus of Democrats had urged him to speak out and several of his female surrogates fielded the issue first. In the meantime, the issue gained traction in social media posts by conservatives, Trump campaign officials and some in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

At one point Biden taped a video statement detailing his work combating sexual assault and harassment. But it did not mention Reade’s allegations, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, and the campaign did not release it. The campaign declined to comment on the video.

Many Biden allies are eager to see the former vice president engage in socially distanced public events. But his team is keenly sensitive to the health risks, including those for the 77-year-old Biden himself, and to the need for Biden to model the respect for scientists and doctors that he argues Trump has flouted, a point Biden made on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday.

In the meantime, he has held virtual town halls and round tables and started a podcast, and his team is increasingly focused on intensifying the campaign’s presence in battleground states. Biden has spent considerable time fundraising, and he routinely receives briefings from public health and economic experts. On Tuesday, Biden announced that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would join a committee on climate change policy in coordination with Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Andrew Bates, a campaign spokesman, said in a statement that Biden had won the Democratic primary “by running a race that was true to Joe Biden’s values.’’

“We did this all with the foot of the incumbent, impeached president on our backs,” he added, dismissing “the concerns of pundits.” “That is why Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, and that is why we are going to beat Donald Trump in the fall.”

Still, some Democrats privately worry that Biden’s advisers may have taken the wrong lesson from a primary campaign that he won rapidly, despite a series of missteps and controversies: That a deep wellspring of good will for Biden, and intense antipathy for Trump among some voters, will smooth any stumbles.

“Joe Biden is a known quantity, and most voters have a generally positive feeling about him,” said Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic strategist who stressed his admiration for the Biden campaign. But he added: “Hillary Clinton started her race as the most admired woman in the world, and she didn’t end that way. The Trump attacks can have a real impact over time.”

Staffing has been a concern as well. The number of people on Clinton’s payroll who were paid at least $1,000 in March 2016 was about 750, federal records show. Biden’s had about 375 in March 2020. In fact, Biden entered April with the smallest campaign staff of any Democrat since at least John Kerry in 2004.

Daughtry said she believed the Biden team understood the challenge. “The question,” she said, “is whether the campaign is able to pivot quickly. All campaigns quickly become bureaucratic.”

That is especially the case for a seasoned politician like Biden, who is surrounded by layers of family members, longtime friends and advisers from different corners of his political universe. Navigating that landscape can be difficult for newer and younger staff members who might have divergent views about what could go viral and what warrants a response.

As his team works to build itself out now, a number of progressive leaders said they had yet to hold formal conversations with Biden or his campaign about their policy priorities. Some also worry that Biden is relying on a strategy that’s too focused on Trump’s self-inflicted wounds and fails to articulate his own vision for the country.

“It is hard to break through right now, but it’s their job to break through,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. “We need to see a more robust response on these issues.”

Still, many Democrats are eager to give Biden room to maneuver.

Biden’s campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, assumed her new role just as the coronavirus hit. Working remotely, she scrutinized the campaign’s departments and devised clearer lines of authority, a process that slowed hiring but was considered a necessary part of pivoting to the general election.

“I just don’t have the anxiety other people have about this,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former senior aide to Clinton and President Barack Obama. “Everybody in the Democratic Party is dying for this to work. They’re going to have the support they need.”

But staggering uncertainties about campaigning during the crisis remain.

Few expect that Biden will enjoy the same traditional multiday coronation before a large national convention that other nominees have received. And the absence of in-person campaigning makes the need for improved digital communications all the more critical.

But the Biden campaign has struggled with basic technical difficulties.

What was hailed as the first all-digital rally last Thursday evening more closely resembled late-night local-access television. Midway through, the feed went black for almost 7 minutes. The audio was garbled. A dramatic walk-up entrance showing Biden removing his aviator sunglasses was mangled. “Did they introduce me?” he asked. “Am I on?”

David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist to Obama, co-wrote an op-ed last week in The New York Times that read as a call to arms for the Biden campaign to shift into a higher gear, including significant expansion of its digital operation — an article that outraged many on the Biden campaign, who saw it as unsolicited advice at a moment of strength in the polls.

In a follow-up interview, Axelrod praised O’Malley Dillon, saying he thought the campaign was “working very hard to get up to speed and doing it under difficult circumstances.” But he cautioned: “As much as Trump is wounded, he is dangerous as a candidate. He is unbridled by any kind of norms. He has the power of the presidency. He is relentless.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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