In the span of one day this week, President Trump gave an interview in which he defended the Confederate flag and delivered a speech from the Rose Garden in which he accused Joe Biden of trying to make office buildings too cold.
It generated just a few of the news cycles Trump dominates in any given week.
The same day, Biden held his only in-person event in the last seven days, in his hometown of Wilmington, Del.
“I have to start by speaking about what millions of Americans know when they wake up with worry, anxiety and fear,” he said, trying to project a steady image amid soaring COVID-19 cases. “We’re still a country in crisis.”
This is typical for Biden. He rarely ventures beyond Delaware or Pennsylvania and rarely holds more than one or two in-person events a week. He tries to offer advice about how to deal with the pandemic, not to be goaded by inflammatory tweets. Occasionally, he rolls out a new plan about infrastructure or jobs.
Biden is not nearly as visible as Trump, but polling averages from RealClearPolitics show he’s leading the president in every key battleground state: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida.
“The Biden campaign is playing it as safe as possible,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies. “Biden’s team feels like they’re ahead by a pretty sizable margin and they don’t want to be making any mistakes … They don’t want him to sort of lose his train of thought, and so they’re trying to make it less risky.”
By lying low, Bolger says, Biden can try to make sure this election is a referendum on the incumbent, as most reelection campaigns are.
“There is nothing playing safe about what Joe Biden is doing,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser with the Biden campaign. “What he is doing is showing people what kind of president he will be.”
The Biden campaign admits that one of its most effective weapons against Trump is Trump himself, what he says and how he acts. But Dunn says their team is also trying to articulate the clear difference between these two candidates.
“Our best counterprogramming with Donald Trump is to contrast Joe Biden’s leadership — his vision for the future, his steadiness, his experience to deal with crises — with what people are getting from their president right now,” she added.
Democrats and Republicans agree the pandemic and the president’s response make the contrast between candidates feel sharper than it did in 2016.
“When he was just a candidate, people judged Trump the way they judged him when he was just a reality TV show. ‘Oh, look, he’s picked a Twitter war with Rosie O’Donnell.’ When you’re president and people are dying, picking a Twitter war with Bubba Wallace, the NASCAR driver, doesn’t save my mom’s life,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala.
He thinks dominating a news cycle is traditionally important, but says the difficulty for Trump right now is that he’s dominating it with “incompetence.”
“Trump’s super power is diversion, and it has failed him in coronavirus. It used to work all the time, it worked on me,” added Begala, who in 2016 helped direct strategy for the main super PAC backing Hillary Clinton, Priorities USA.
Begala points out that in the last century, voters have fired only three elected presidents: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. In all of those cases, he said, there came a point where people just stopped listening to the president and essentially gave up on him.
“I think Biden’s strategy is to let Trump fail,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush. “Make Biden as small as possible, don’t make him an issue, don’t put him in a position to say ‘You ain’t black’ to anybody else again,” referring to a controversial comment that Biden made on the popular morning radio show The Breakfast Club.
Fleischer admits that part of what makes this current campaign challenging for Trump is that he has a “shadow” opponent in Biden.
In the last month, Biden held three public virtual events, seven in-person events, all in Delaware or Pennsylvania, and a total of six TV interviews.
That schedule is depriving Trump of the daily back-and-forth he craves, and Fleischer says Trump doesn’t know how to handle this low-key Biden.
For starters, Fleischer thinks the nickname “sleepy Joe” is off base.
“With three-and-half years of President Trump being as red hot as he is, and with the COVID scare underway, ‘sleepy’ also connotes calm, which very well may be the antidote for many voters to the Trump era,” Fleischer said
The president has been trying out alternative names, like “corrupt Joe,” but Fleischer recommends painting Biden as “weak.” He thinks the president should try to portray his opponent as old, prone to gaffes and someone who, even before the pandemic, didn’t campaign as rigorously as some of his primary opponents did.
Republicans also feel that Biden is benefiting by being a generic anti-Trump, someone who, in their view, is relatively undefined with voters, despite being in public life for decades. “Once he gets more defined, some Republicans who are taking a look at him will probably return home, and some of the more conservative independents will as well,” said Bolger.
Recent polls show Biden performing strongly with college-educated white voters, a demographic that for decades has favored the Republican Party.
For now, the candidate may be focused on a “less is more” strategy, but Democrats say that their operation is bigger and better positioned than it was was four years ago.
“If you were to have parachuted in at this point in 2016, I think you would have found there were probably around 20 people on the ground,” said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “The difference here is that we have about 160 people on the ground.”
“On the ground” is figurative. Nobody from the Biden campaign is knocking on doors, even though Trump campaign volunteers working with the Republican Party have been.
Democrats say that’s foolish, given the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
They think a lot of what Trump is doing is foolish, but they just don’t see a point in picking a fight over it.
“I think there’s nothing wrong with following Napoleon’s maxim, which is, when your opponent is destroying himself, don’t interrupt,” said Begala.