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As the global pandemic over the Wuhan coronavirus changes life as we know it, an old style of campaigning is making a comeback as presidential candidates have no choice but to run a nationwide campaign locally from their own home.
While voting was underway across six states on Super Tuesday 2.0, the remaining two Democratic presidential candidates cancelled large events in Ohio and Pennsylvania out of fears of spreading the virus. The decisions to cancel were followed shortly by a cascade of events altering the complete nature of the 2020 presidential race. Fifteen states postponed elections and the final two candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was forced to pursue voters exclusively through virtual means as gatherings of more than 10 people are either discouraged by CDC guidelines or outright prohibited by state and local governments.
As the likely Democratic nominee Biden has taken to the airwaves to criticize President Donald Trump. He’s conducted interview after interview on cable networks from his Delaware home, while holding press conferences of his own to counter the White House briefings. On Sunday, Biden launched a podcast titled “Here’s the Deal.”
Sanders on the other hand has been live-streaming his own talk show and hosting fireside chats from Burlington, Vermont.
The home-run operations have come to resemble modern versions of age-old campaigns from a century ago where candidates would seek the nation’s highest office from their own front porch.
The “front-porch campaign” refers to the strategy where candidates would hold rallies and gatherings at their own homes instead of themselves traveling to voters across the country seeking votes.
In an era of turbulence governed by an unconventional president, Biden is looking more like a candidate from a distant past than a contemporary game-changer running on a pledge to “Shake up Washington.”
Biden’s message of “No Malarkey” moderate pragmatism with a steady hand in the Oval Office echoes the “Return to Normalcy” motto of the last porch campaign employed exactly one hundred years ago by Ohio Sen. Warren G. Harding who ran from his home in Marion, Ohio. Although it should be noted Biden is no moderate like he claims.
While operating under an aura of uncertainty, The Democratic National Convention was officially postponed until August as the virus continues its sweep across the country into the summer. Whether major events will even be able to proceed until a proper treatment or vaccine is developed to combat the virus remains unknown leaving whether current campaign tactics will become a permanent fixture in this year’s race an open question.
Other presidents who ran successful front-porch campaigns include James A. Garfield in 1880, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and William McKinley in 1986, all of whom happened to be from Ohio.
With nearly a month in so far, Biden has fared poorly under the new circumstances even as it initially played to his benefit in the primary against Sanders who thrived with the energy provided by massive audiences. By the time the virus escalated to a crisis, shifting the race into a purely online contest, Biden had already largely shored up the nomination and has since solidified a nearly insurmountable lead in the delegate count.
Biden however, has struggled to attract much attention in the digital space where the public focus has moved almost entirely to during the pandemic. His online videos are bland and boring, raking in dismal viewership with the low-grade quality of a local news program at best. When Biden began his press briefings on the virus last week to offer suggestions to the White House, no major network carried them live.
When the networks have given Biden airtime, he has only refreshed concerns about his age and aptitude appearing frail and forgetful in the comfort of his home in Wilmington.
Biden has also been coughing in live interviews while downplaying questions surrounding his health. Biden’s coughing has even earned admonishment from CNN’s Jake Tapper instructing the former vice president to cough into his arm in compliance with public health recommendations.
“You know, you’re supposed to cough into your elbow… I learned that actually covering your White House,” Tapper said.
“Fortunately I’m alone in my home, but that’s okay,” Biden replied.
If an exclusively online campaign does define the 2020 race, Trump will no doubt benefit given the president’s strengths in the digital realm and the perks that come with incumbency leading the nation through crisis.
Trump captivated voters in 2016 whose speeches were so entertaining on live television that networks drowned out Republican competitors to air them in real time.
Even in the last month, Trump has consistently addressed the nation through daily briefings and called into Fox News when not at the podium. The Trump campaign’s early investments in a digital operation will also bear significant returns if the president’s signature rallies are no longer an option.
While last century saw four past presidents thriving with front-porch campaigns, Biden’s early mishaps in the new contest showcase an even larger uphill battle for Democrats in a match-up between the former vice president’s living room and Trump’s White House.