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This pandemic is forcing Joe Biden to face an urgent reality. The Internet is now the most important part of the 2020 presidential campaign. And until this point, online strategy hasn't been Biden's strong suit. Here's NPR's Asma Khalid.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Joe Biden is a classic retail politician, a man who enjoys shaking hands, giving hugs and taking selfies. But now, because of the coronavirus, he can't do any of those things. Instead, it's virtual fundraisers, livestream speeches and remote TV interviews.
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JOE BIDEN: Well, the irony is, virtual campaigning, I'll probably reach more people than I would out there shaking hands.
KHALID: That was Biden earlier this week in an interview with ABC's "The View." The former vice president is not known to bring out the mega-crowds that greet Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, and so he seems intrigued by the reach of this new campaign style. But quickly scaling up a digital operation can be difficult. Teddy Goff was the digital director for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.
TEDDY GOFF: I think the next however many weeks or months it is are going to be really challenging for every campaign. I also think there's a huge opportunity, you know. Everyone in America is sitting in front of their device all day and all night.
KHALID: The challenge, Goff says, is finding the right way to reach voters - figuring out what time people want to tune in and what channel works best.
ROB FLAHERTY: The things that will make us successful now are, like, the things that are going to make us successful online in the general. It just means that we need to, like, do them faster (laughter).
KHALID: That's Rob Flaherty. He's Biden's digital director. The campaign sees Facebook as a friendly space. But that's also one of Donald Trump's preferred platforms. And the president has millions more followers than Biden. The other complication is that Biden is not yet the Democratic nominee. He does have the largest number of delegates, but Bernie Sanders has not conceded. And, in fact, the Vermont senator has his own robust digital operation. He's seen as a pioneer in the video livestream space. Biden, on the other hand, was a late adopter.
Still, it's one thing for a candidate to take his message totally online and another for volunteers and organizers to campaign on the ground when they're physically not allowed to knock on doors. Prior to the outbreak, Paul Ruiz used to hold weekly phone banks for Joe Biden with a bunch of volunteers packed into a room. This past weekend, he organized a remote phone bank through Zoom, a video conferencing platform.
PAUL RUIZ: Really, the purpose of the Zoom is to bring everybody together and retain sort of the social element of campaigns. I mean, campaigns are very much social activities for a lot of people.
KHALID: Ruiz admits that calling voters while on a video conference is awkward. So his phone bank was less about the actual work of dialing numbers and more about creating camaraderie between volunteers. Plus, he says, the tools already exist for a volunteer to dial or text voters from their own homes.
RUIZ: There is a increasing virtualization of campaigns that I think has blunted the impact of the pandemic issue.
KHALID: But even as modern campaigns have moved online in recent years, Ruiz says there's one essential ingredient in the campaign that has not changed. It's that physical, in-person aspect of campaigning.
RUIZ: There really is something to be said about getting together as a group and, for example, marching in a parade or knocking on doors with somebody.
KHALID: Ruiz says that kind of in-person engagement really connects with voters. But since that's not possible, Biden just announced an alternative way of connecting with people. He, too, is launching a podcast.
Asma Khalid, NPR News.
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