How Biden navigated pandemic politics to win the White House
Wilmington, Nov 8: Joe Biden was fresh off winning the Michigan primary and effectively capturing the Democratic presidential nomination, a prize he'd sought for the better part of three decades. Instead of plotting a strategy to build momentum, he was contemplating an abrupt halt. He gathered his senior team in a conference room on the 19th floor of his campaign's Philadelphia headquarters, the type of in-person meeting that would soon be deemed a public health risk.
A former surgeon general and Food and Drug Administration commissioner joined on speakerphone. As the coronavirus began to explode across the United States that March, Biden asked a question that would ultimately guide the campaign's thinking for months: “What should I be modeling?” The health experts recommended the 77-year-old Biden step away from campaigning as soon as possible, both for his safety and that of staff and supporters. Biden agreed. He decided that he and every staff member would work from home starting that weekend.
All field offices would be closed. He wouldn't return to in-person campaigning for 174 days. It was a decision without precedent in modern American politics. Barack Obama and John McCain returned to Washington in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign to respond to that year's financial collapse, but only briefly. In an era when voters are accustomed to seeing their presidential candidates constantly, the idea of a complete withdrawal was unthinkable. That was especially true for Biden, whose tactile approach to politics is legendary.
“It was a hard call,” said Jake Sullivan, a senior Biden adviser. "If there's no pandemic, he gets a chance to get out and do what he does, which is retail campaigning, meeting people where they are, having the opportunity to sit with folks and speak to crowds and walk down the street. That's what he would have preferred, obviously.”
For Biden, who has been elected the 46th president of the United States, perhaps no decision was more consequential to his victory, making it possible to flip states such as Arizona and Wisconsin, where coronavirus infections and hospitalizations spiked the week of the election. Still, the cautious approach prompted ridicule from President Donald Trump, who constantly teased Biden for “hiding in his basement” and returned to large in-person events much sooner than his rival, and with far fewer precautions. Some Democrats also worried. Several state party chairs and down-ballot candidates privately urged the campaign to resume in-person events and canvassing. Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa warned that Latino turnout could suffer.
The lack of personal outreach has been blamed for contributing to Biden's poor showing with Latinos in Florida, a battleground that Trump carried. But Biden refused to change course, defining himself early on as a responsible foil to Trump, someone who could make difficult choices and serve as something of a role model to a country facing a historic set of crises. It was a theme Biden would return to repeatedly in the months ahead as millions of people lost their jobs, the largest protest movement since the civil rights era bloomed in response to police killings of Black people, and Trump threatened central elements of American democracy by refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost. This account of Biden's rise to the presidency is based on interviews with more than a dozen people who hold senior positions in the Biden and Trump campaigns along with strategists and donors in each party.
Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the turbulent campaign with candor. They all agree on one thing: The coronavirus fundamentally reshaped the race. In the early hours of Friday, October 2, a senior official at the Republican National Committee texted a colleague with a dire message about the fate of Trump's campaign: It was hopeless. The president had just announced that he and his wife, Melania, had tested positive for the coronavirus, joining the 7 million Americans already infected.
By the end of the day, Trump would be taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Marine One, the short helicopter ride over the Washington skyline captured on live television. Trump's illness presented serious medical concerns and raised alarm about the stability of the U.S. government. At 74, Trump was at a higher risk of serious complications from the virus. He refused to temporarily cede power to Vice President Mike Pence as he recovered.
“I talked to him that night. I talked to him the whole hospitalization,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump's closest allies in Washington. “Friday night, he wasn't feeling good.”
Trump's infection was both a stunning twist and entirely predictable. He'd been cavalier about the virus for months, painting Democrats as reactionaries using the pandemic to take away individual rights. He mocked mask-wearing recommendations from scientists and returned to his trademark rallies, packing thousands of mostly unmasked supporters together, sometimes over the objection of local health officials. He held large-scale events on the South Lawn of the White House, including the introduction of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett less than a week before his diagnosis.