Slow connection speeds. Periodic blackouts. Stodgy staged feeling. The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate’s first attempt at a pandemic-forced virtual campaign rally didn’t go well.
(CN) — The 2020 presidential election is only 180 days away.
While polls show former Vice President Joe Biden with a sizeable lead over President Donald Trump, Biden’s attempt at a virtual rally in Tampa, Florida, on Thursday indicated why the coronavirus-affected world presents a distinct disadvantage for the Democrat.
While Trump continues to wield the bully pulpit by appearing on television, touring manufacturing plants and using other events to disseminate his messages, Biden is relegated to making appearances via Zoom on video chats.
The discrepancy between these two media approaches was never more apparent Thursday when Biden’s virtual rally was plagued by glitches, weak transmission signals and periodic blackouts before the candidate finally delivered a message about Trump’s insufficiency as a leader during the nation’s biggest public health crisis in living memory.
The rally was meant to focus on Florida and the unique challenges of its residents during the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the Sunshine State.
Biden criticized Republican leadership in the state, including former governor and current U.S. Sentator Rick Scott.
“In the thick of this crisis, Florida has the worst rate of fulfilling unemployment claims of any state in the country,” Biden said. “It’s no surprise, the unemployment system was allowed to be hollowed by Governor Scott back in 2011.”
Biden was preceded by Democratic lawmakers from Florida who sung his praises and talked about the need to unseat Trump.
“Joe is empathetic and caring and he stands up for working people,” said Kathy Castor, a congresswoman representing Tampa. “We know he listens to scientists and public health experts and America is in dire need of that skill right now.”
But more than a few commentators who showed up on Periscope or other livestreaming platforms, complained about the connection and cracked jokes about Biden’s technological acumen and hinted at a penchant for dial-up internet.
The Biden camp tried to mimic the trappings of a real live political rally, with music from a DJ and the accompanying enthusiasm, but the trick is difficult to pull off in the virtual world. Images of DJ Jack Henriquez spinning records and bobbing to music in his living room just doesn’t have the same feel of a live campaign event, with the staging, lights and cheering crowd.
But the format deficit is not wholly a disadvantage for Biden, who has displayed troubling signs of cognitive fraying at times during the campaign. By not appearing often in public and only talking from a teleprompter when he does appear, Biden can avoid the gaffes and disjointed mumbling that has sporadically characterized his efforts on the trail.
Conversely, Trump has not taken advantage of his ability to commandeer the media spotlight as he has consistently scuffled during daily press briefings with a tendency to ramble off-topic or focus solely on his putative achievements in curtailing a global pandemic that continues to spread unabated across the United States.
A low point for the president came on April 23, when Trump appeared to suggest injecting bleach or allowing UV light to penetrate the human body could cure the coronavirus — prompting incredulity and ridicule from pundits and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach,” Biden tweeted soon after the Trump presser.
Trump has since appeared at daily briefings less and less frequently while his team has encouraged him to downplay the pandemic by centering an economic message.
It’s clear from Biden’s rhetoric on Thursday, the former vice president will attempt to make the election a pure referendum on Trump and his agenda, particularly as it relates to the coronavirus response.
Biden repeatedly criticized Trump for failing to properly prepare and respond to the coronavirus despite receiving several intelligence briefings beginning in January.
“He could have been bracing the public to slow the spread. Instead, all we got was denial,” Biden said.
The feeling on the other side of the campaign fight is that Trump would be well served to make the election about how he contrasts with Biden rather than running on his own record.
Aside from a massive tax cut, which now looks fiscally imprudent given the economic doldrums roiling the nation, there is not much in terms of legislative or policy accomplishments by his administration.
However, his backers will point to the appointment of a slew of conservative judges, regulatory rollbacks and his ability to stack federal agencies with more business-friendly personnel as reasons he should be elected to serve again.
The question of format will likely continue to dog Biden as the campaign begins to heat up. It is still not clear whether there will be presidential debates or whether the two men will share the same stage over the course of the summer and into the fall.
The Democratic National Committee has still not decided whether it will hold its convention in person or make it a virtual affair. The GOP is in the same boat.
While Trump can still command television media because he’s the president, he is handicapped in his ability to hold large campaign-style rallies — his primary method to disseminate his message and gin up enthusiasm for his presidency.
In the short term, Trump will have to rely on press briefings and interviews and Biden must settle with Zoom-like virtual events.
If Thursday is any indication, there will be glitches.