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Biden makes end run around Trump as the president dominates the national stage

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/23/2020 Annie Linskey
a screen shot of an open laptop computer sitting on top of a book: Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a virtual event on Monday, April 13. © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a virtual event on Monday, April 13.

For the local TV news viewers in Pittsburgh, Joe Biden offered a dash of dad humor, making a play on the state’s nickname: “Pennsylvania is not only the Keystone State, it is the key” to winning the White House, he said.

Speaking on a broadly aired Hispanic radio show based in Los Angeles, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee promised that on his first day in office he’d push for an overhaul to the country’s immigration rules, a topic he has rarely addressed.

And early Wednesday morning on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” the 77-year-old provided some insight on whether he’d run for a second term if he won a first. The decision on a second term would be made “three years out,” he said. 

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Homebound at his estate in Wilmington, Del., Biden’s quarantined campaign is adjusting to a new reality in which the prime-time TV slots that would carry his rallies and speeches under normal conditions are now largely dedicated to subjects other than the 2020 presidential campaign. Making matters worse for Biden, President Trump dominates each evening with his coronavirus task force briefings, which mostly are carried live by cable and can have the feel of a daily campaign rally.

That’s left Biden with little choice but to spread his message around — bracketing the president by offering himself to local newscasts in battleground states that run his interviews while viewers wait for Trump’s briefings and hamming it up on radio or late night (or late, late night) TV.

Biden’s appearances tend toward relatable and soft, in contrast to Trump’s more contentious evening performances. But they also aim at groups of voters that Biden must attract to win in November, including suburbanites, younger voters and nonwhite voters.

“Joe Biden is counterprogramming by finding precisely the local and demographic niches he needs to connect with,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) who endorsed Biden this week after initially supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “This is a contest in the electoral college. And it will come down to the handful of swing states, where Joe Biden is focused like a laser beam.”

Still, the approach leaves Biden operating on the fringes of the national stage, where he’s less likely to be blotted out by Trump. Polls show Biden has struggled to make his message about the virus become, well, viral, although overall results are mixed.

More than 40 percent of respondents in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal national survey were not aware or had no opinion of what Biden had said about the coronavirus, which has recently become the thrust of his campaign message. The same poll found that Biden led Trump by nine points when respondents were asked who would be better at responding to a crisis, and by the same margin when asked specifically about handling the coronavirus.

“There is not a ready off-the-shelf playbook for how you campaign in this environment if you a nonincumbent, so that’s part of what you’re seeing,” said Erika Fowler, a government professor at Wesleyan University and the director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and analyzes political advertising. “We’re all being thrown into this new environment, where campaigns are going to need to reinvent, to some extent, how they go about things, how they going to go about reaching citizens.”

While it would be better for Biden to compete on an even field with Trump, she said, “I think we’re at a stage of this event where people are starting to feel coronavirus fatigue. So it seems like to me that the local television news strategy and reaching around is probably a good one at this point.”

That reach took Biden early Wednesday to CBS’s “The Late Late Show” — a program watched by about a million viewers, according to Nielsen’s April survey.

“I’m just glad I’m not in your car, because I can’t sing worth a damn,” Biden joked, referring to Corden’s popular carpool karaoke segments.

Biden stayed on through two commercial breaks and spent much of the appearance trying to drive his message about the coronavirus. Namely, he said the Obama administration’s warnings to Trump’s advisers about the threat from pandemics fell on deaf ears, that he recognized the threat posed by the virus far sooner than the president did and that he would have responded more effectively.

“Everything with him is slow motion,” Biden said, referring to the president. “We have to move quickly, quickly.”

He’s also made similar pitches in recent weeks on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Each one included some banter, and some turn-of-the-screw scooplet, but remained largely focused on what Biden described as his competence compared to Trump’s haphazard response to the crisis.

Biden’s local television appearances are designed not to compete with Trump but to slide onto the airwaves ahead of the president. On Sunday night, Biden’s campaign staffers reached out to local reporters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan to offer 5 to 7 minutes of the former vice president’s time.

The choice of outlets was obvious — Biden spoke directly to audiences in the three usually Democratic states that Trump breached when he won the 2016 election. If the point needed underlining, Biden referred to Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as “pivotal to winning the electoral college in November” in a fundraising appeal Monday.

Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said local television has “been a cornerstone of our media strategy.”

“People put tremendous faith in their hometown outlets, and we always want to meet people where they are,” Bedingfield said in a statement to The Post. “Sometimes that means bypassing the national media narrative of the day and talking to people in their own backyards.”

And with people across the country shut in during the pandemic and eager for news, ratings for local TV have skyrocketed. “It’s colossal,” said Kim Voet, WDIV-TV Detroit’s news director, who said that their viewership jumped to levels not seen in 15 years.

Biden’s campaign had been pitching surrogates to the Detroit station for weeks — only to be rebuffed by the news organization, which wanted to hold out for an interview with the candidate. The strategy worked for both sides: The Biden interview ran as part of the 11 p.m. news show.

There’s another, more traditional, reason to go straight to veteran local reporters — to bypass what the campaign sees as Beltway concerns.

“Campaigns and political operatives have been trying to leapfrog the national press into local markets for a long time,” said Mark Longabaugh, who was an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign. “The coverage can be more straightforward.”

Indeed, over the course of four interviews Biden was not asked by anyone about a reported allegation of sexual assault made by a long-ago aide. (He also wasn’t asked about it on late-night TV.)

The questions range significantly in difficulty. On the softer side, veteran political reporter Jon Delano from Pennsylvania’s KDKA-TV opened his Biden one-on-one with this softball: “When you think of Pittsburgh, what do you think of?”

“I like it a lot,” gushed Biden. “They’re the people I grew up with. They’re the middle class, working-class folks who bust their neck and did well, but went through some really tough times.”

But local interviewers also press on issues that the national media can ignore. The Pittsburgh interview included a question on whether Biden would end fracking, a critical industry in the must-win state that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party fiercely opposes.

“I would not shut it down, no,” Biden said, explaining that his position is to ban new leases on federal land, which he hastened to add was only a tiny percentage of the industry.

In Michigan, WDIV’s Mara MacDonald tried to pin him down on coronavirus aid: Should Washington’s Kennedy Center and public television receive federal help? The institutions were awarded $25 million and $75 million respectively in the $2.2 trillion relief package Trump signed into law.

“I get it,” Biden said. “It’s not where it needs to go. It needs to — we need to focus on small businesses, hospitals and the basic fundamental people who hold our society together.”

Biden’s virtual three state tour included some rough patches. While speaking to a Pennsylvania TV station, Biden referred to the state’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, as “Dale.” (Dale Wolf was the governor of Delaware in the early 1990s.)

He answered in the affirmative when a TV reporter asked if he would name his vice presidential pick by Memorial Day. Later in the interview, Biden clarified that he thought the reporter had asked about Labor Day.

And during another interview, he briefly struggled to recall if the state needed N95 respirators or a hypothetical N96 model.

Several of the miscues were noted by Republican operatives who amplified the errors.

“Joe Biden sat down for a few interviews from his basement and demonstrated yet again that he simply doesn’t what have it takes to run the country,” wrote Trump campaign spokesman Andrew Clark in a blast email that highlighted several of the verbal errors.

Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso dismissed Biden’s effort as “still struggling to stay relevant from his basement” while Trump and his various campaign efforts are seen by millions nightly.

Indeed, for Biden, even a concerted effort to reach around the president and the virus can still prove difficult.

“We are awaiting today’s briefing from the coronavirus task force — when that briefing begins we will bring it to you live,” announced Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV news anchor Shannon Perrine, making it clear what the main story of the night would be before introducing their interview with the former vice president.

“Now,” she said, “up-to-the-minute information as we go one-on-one with Joe Biden.”

annie.linskey@washpost.com

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