Trump And Biden Wage An Uneven Virtual Campaign : The NPR Politics Podcast The president with a major social media presence is facing a Democratic challenger with fewer digital resources. Biden's strategy counts on real-world conditions overcoming Trump's virtual dominance.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and campaign correspondent Asma Khalid.

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Trump And Biden Wage An Uneven Virtual Campaign

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Trump And Biden Wage An Uneven Virtual Campaign

Trump And Biden Wage An Uneven Virtual Campaign

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LIZ: This is Liz (ph) from Glen Allen, Va. We've been home for quite a long time now. My two boys who are college students have rediscovered their Lego collection. I was surprised to hear that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LEGO PIECES FALLING)

LIZ: ...Again. It still gives me a shudder when I hear them hit the carpet. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

1:50 PM on Thursday, May 21.

LIZ: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: I too have Legos all over my living room floor right now but from a decidedly younger child (laughter).

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Did you know Lego is the plural of Lego?

DAVIS: I did not know that.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I did not know that, yeah.

KEITH: Yeah, it's weird. It's both singular and plural, which is confusing.

DAVIS: Good to know.

KEITH: Lego.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

DAVIS: So over the last couple of months, traditional presidential campaigning has basically come to a total standstill. There's no rallies, no town halls, no selfies. Just like everything else in American life, most campaigning has moved online. Tam and Asma, you co-reported a story about how President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been adjusting their strategies to reach voters on the virtual campaign trail during the pandemic.

Tam, I want to start with you, because when I think about the presidential campaign trail and the president, the No. 1 thing that comes to mind with Trump is his campaign rallies. He loves them. He loves being out on the road. He loves these big arena events and definitely something that cannot be happening right now. So how is the Trump campaign address that?

KEITH: They are trying to create the next best thing, something that can create that sort of MAGA kinship and some of the excitement of a rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In 2016, we built an unbeatable operation that changed history. Now, we unveil our next breakthrough.

KEITH: They have a new app that is incredibly immersive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome to Team Trump Online.

KEITH: It's gamified. You get points for sharing events and other things with your friends. You get tickets, virtual tickets, to attend live events - you know, live streamed events. And just like the intro, the video intro to get into these streamed events does what it can to capture the feel of being in an arena. You know, it's this animated thing with, you know, clips of the president and sounds from the rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You joined our movement...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A lot of President Trump supporters here.

TRUMP: ...The greatest movement in the history of our country.

KEITH: It just makes you feel like nothing has changed when everything has changed.

DAVIS: Asma, the Biden campaign wasn't exactly known for having the same kind of heavily attended campaign rallies, that kind of wild enthusiasm at his events. What's he been doing?

KHALID: No. I mean, you're right. He doesn't have these sort of, like, really flashy rallies that Donald Trump does. But what I will say is he still really relishes the opportunity to meet people in person. And when you would go to Joe Biden events, I would say, you know, people that I talked to never said that they really came to listen to his speech. They came to give, you know, the former vice president a hug after the event, to meet him, to take a picture with him on the rope line. And all of those really intimate interactions are gone now. And I think it's really hard to replicate them in the digital space.

You know, the Biden campaign, I will say, does not have anything akin to what Tam describes, you know, not this flashy kind of ad hoc almost cable lineup that we're seeing from the Trump campaign. Instead, they have this mix of virtual content. And what they say they're trying to do is essentially meet people where they are in this moment. And a lot of people are watching TV, so they really put a premium on local TV, which is a pretty, you know, trusted source across the political spectrum. He's doing cable hits. They're doing Zoom meetings, Zoom fundraisers, virtual roundtables. It's a mix of just trying to get the vice president out in as many places as they can to as many people as they can.

DAVIS: So can you each walk us through what a typical day on the campaign trail looks like right now?

KEITH: So the Trump campaign every night at 8 p.m. has a Team Trump webcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This is your source for real news, not fake news, straight from the campaign and the president himself.

KEITH: Now these are simulcast on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and inside the campaign's app, which is really where they're trying to direct people. And, you know, in some ways, these are like an infomercial for the Trump campaign. President Trump is a constant presence, but he's not actually there. You know, the president is still being the president, so sometimes he appears as soundbites. He is described as this great figure who has always been right, who's always proved the people who doubted him wrong. And also in this universe, at this 8 p.m. nightly webcast, Joe Biden and the Democrats hate America. They are always wrong, and everything is awful. And the hosts of these live stream's programs are Trump campaign aides and members of the Trump family like daughter-in-law Lara Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARA TRUMP: Why do Democrats insist on keeping people out of work, holding them hostage over ridiculous demands?

MITCH MCCONNELL: You know, I don't know what it is, but I think you're right. If you look at the rhetoric...

KEITH: But on any given day, President Trump is also doing the president thing. He is, you know, holding roundtables at the White House. Or today, for instance, he is travelling to Michigan to tour a factory that is now making ventilators.

KHALID: You know, that, I think, is really the big distinction between what we're seeing from Biden's campaign and Trump's campaign, right? Trump is going out and physically traveling to battleground states. And they might ostensibly be for the office of the presidency, right? He's visiting these PPE factories in the role that he serves as president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you. All that social distancing - look at you people all spread out 6 feet. That's pretty impressive.

KHALID: But fortuitously for him, he is visiting very key battleground states - right? - Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona. Joe Biden hasn't physically gone in person to any of those states, and so the campaign has announced these virtual travel days to battleground states, and they're trying to kind of counterprogram in this way. Both Joe Biden as well as his wife Jill Biden have been hosting these virtual travel days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JILL BIDEN: So we're trying something new, virtual visits from our home here in Wilmington, Del.

KHALID: You know, I will say, there is still a sense to me when you watch these events and when you see what Tam is describing of just how, like, visually distinct they are from one another because Tam describes these really sort of, like, flashy events that are highly programmed. And what you see from Joe Biden's events, you know, if you take a look at the virtual roundtable, it has this intro where, you know, you hear a voice tell you, like, welcome for attending this Joe Biden event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Thank you for joining this Biden for President event.

KHALID: Biden is known to go off on these tangents, and sometimes you hear that in some of these events. You know, he made some comments about the geese that you could hear in the background recently at this governor's roundtable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: That's the geese you hear in the background. There's a little pond back here. Those Canadian geese are trying to get away from the virus. Anyway...

KHALID: But again, I want to highlight the very thing you do not get in any of these events is the very thing that I think so many Democratic voters told me they enjoyed about going to Biden's events, which was the opportunity to meet him, to talk to him, to really get a chance to, in some ways, interact with him on the rope line. And that is just, I would argue, essentially impossible to recreate fully in the virtual space.

DAVIS: All right, we need to take a quick break. But when we get back, we'll talk more about life on the virtual campaign trail.

And we're back. And I wonder what do you think their virtual campaign strategies tell you about what they're trying to do here. Who are they trying to reach? What is the purpose of these strategies at this moment?

KHALID: You know, so Biden's campaign is really counting on the idea that what voters want in this moment of crisis is a leader who's exhibiting empathy and who has experience. And so I would say that, you know, it's why you hear Biden, it's why you hear so many of his surrogates highlight, you know, a couple of things in this moment. One has been the president's response to the public health crisis but also to the economic fallout that we've seen. And they've really tried to make this election a referendum. They believe that this election is going to be a referendum on how President Trump has handled this all. And so it's why, you know, they feel - and I think a lot of Democrats will acknowledge that when it comes to being the dominant voice on social media, you know, look; that is Donald Trump. They don't see a world in which Biden will necessarily win that battle, but they don't know that he needs to be sort of, like, fighting with the same rhetoric.

You know, so when they're organizing volunteers - I was listening in on this training session they were doing virtually with folks out in Pennsylvania - one of the things that they focus on is that at this point in time, they're not really focused on, you know, phone banking to get out the vote or to attack Trump. They're phone banking to do these community check-in calls. And so what I heard from the campaign was, like, these are calls to essentially kind of be a good Samaritan and check in on your neighbor, see how they're doing in this moment of COVID crisis. You know, you have people kind of virtually getting together to stitch face masks. And that's, for them, what this moment at this point in time is about around the campaign. And, I guess, the assumption is that later on, this will translate into concrete action.

KEITH: And the Trump campaign and the Republican Party were doing those sort of wellness checks about a month and a half ago. They flipped the switch on that, and now it is scorched-earth scripts when they make their calls, attacking Joe Biden as being Beijing Biden. It's a much more negative, tear-down-your-opposition type of approach right now. This is all about firing up the base, keeping them together, keeping them angry. I spoke with Stefan Smith who worked on the Buttigieg campaign doing digital organizing. And he said that the Trump campaign has really created this walled garden for its base.

STEFAN SMITH: This is about protecting your voters from anything that might - maybe not persuade them to vote from someone else but might keep them from turning out. Keep them angry, and you keep them engaged.

DAVIS: So my question is - I mean, this all makes sense, right? Candidates are trying to stay on the campaign trail. They're holding virtual rallies. They've got their apps. All of that makes sense. But do you have a sense of whether voters are actually engaging in this virtual campaign trail? I mean, if someone was going to show up to a local meet-and-greet with Joe Biden, are they still going to watch him streaming his local event?

KHALID: I think that's a really hard question to gauge at this moment in time. What I can tell you is that the campaign provided views numbers to us just based on the stats that they say they have of how many people have tuned in to their videos, to their online content since they began to go virtual in about late March. And that number is at 125 million views.

KEITH: And the Trump campaign over approximately the same time period - a little bit less time - said that they have gotten about 375 million views, which leads me to an analogy that, you know, clearly these campaigns are just trying to appeal to my heart. So the Trump campaign has now started describing itself as the Death Star - a "Star Wars" reference.

DAVIS: Maybe not the best analogy, but go on.

KEITH: Well, you know, I had been calling them the Death Star for a while, and then I was afraid they were going to be offended because, like, you know, the Death Star gets blown up because they find the plans, and...

DAVIS: Right (laughter). Spoiler alert.

KEITH: ...Spoiler alert, it gets blown up at the end of, like, a couple of different movies. But now the Biden campaign is going with it. And they told Asma that they see themselves as the Rebel Alliance, which is sort of, you know, this ragtag crew that, you know, is taping their spaceship together with duct tape, basically.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

KEITH: But, you know, and isn't the big behemoth, but in the end, they win.

DAVIS: So the president seems to have a clear digital advantage, but is that actually impacting how we're seeing the race shake out?

KHALID: Well, if you talk to Democrats, they would say that it doesn't, right? I mean, they point to polling over the last few weeks, last few months that's shown Joe Biden to have a fairly consistent lead over Donald Trump. And, you know, one Democratic strategist told me that sure, Donald Trump can say something that captures a lot of attention and gets, you know, thousands of retweets. But he would argue he's not sure that it actually persuades voters. And, in fact, it might actually turn off a couple of voters. So, you know, Democratic strategists acknowledge that Trump has a clear advantage. In their view, it's not necessarily persuading voters, though - his strategy, they say.

KEITH: It's not clear how much the Trump campaign is really trying to persuade people. It seems, more than anything, they are trying to keep the voters who voted for him last time engaged and excited and the voters who didn't vote for him last time but should have because they fit that demographic and that viewpoint to actually find them and get them out to vote. Anything beyond that, they're not really trying to reach new audiences or new people.

DAVIS: All right, well, that's a wrap for today. But you can find more of Asma and Tam's reporting at npr.org. And you can subscribe to a weekly roundup of our best online analysis at npr.org/politicsnewsletter. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the presidential campaign.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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