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'A classic do no harm strategy': Biden's campaign enters key stretch

Criticized for not being more visible in the early days of the pandemic, Biden has emerged with a strong lead in the polls as Trump's attacks have so far failed to stick.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about economic recovery during a campaign event in New Castle, Del., on July 21, 2020.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about economic recovery during a campaign event in New Castle, Del., on July 21, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Joe Biden, who was criticized by Democrats in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic for not being visible enough to counter the omnipresence of President Donald Trump, has emerged up in the polls as the 2020 election enters a pivotal stretch.

He's seeing success from a low-key, yet effective, virtual campaign, Republican and Democratic strategists, as well as former lawmakers, told NBC News. Biden has spent the last several weeks rolling out ambitious policy proposals, ramping up advertisement spending and announcing a surge in key hires in battleground states to complement a steady stream of on-message speeches delivered virtually or to small groups — most often hammering the president for his response to the devastating pandemic and the protests for racial justice.

The upside of a just-visible-enough strategy has become especially clear, these sources said, as voters view it in contrast to Trump, who downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and resisted wearing a face covering in public before offering a more realistic portrait of the worsening crisis near the end of July. The president has lobbed myriad attacks at Biden that have so far failed to stick, and his 2020 re-election campaign has hit pause on TV ad spending to review its messaging strategy after a shake-up of top staff.

"The moment we're in — that we're in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis — has really allowed for the campaign, so to speak, to come to Biden," Democratic strategist Joel Payne said in an interview. "The fact that the campaign calendar is essentially shortened, the fact that the campaign schedule is essentially lightened, and that the nature of pandemic-era events are more scripted, these are pluses for Biden."

In the disorienting first weeks of the pandemic, some pundits wondered whether the limitations put in place by the public health crisis might harm some of Biden's core political strengths, such as his skill at making one-on-one connections with voters and his ability to convey empathy.

But, after a series of glitchy virtual events, the Biden campaign is entering August — the month in which he has said he will announce his choice for vice president and which will see him officially accept his party's nomination — with a solid recipe for the digital campaign that voters, according to national and battleground state polls, appear to be embracing.

“Voters have come to the realization that this is what the campaign trail is going to look like this cycle,” Payne said. “The Biden folks invested in that pretty early. And they stuck to the plan, even when people were criticizing them for the challenges they were experiencing.”

Calibrating the campaign to the pandemic

Following a stretch of several weeks in March and April during which the newly all-virtual campaign was hit by persistent questions over its ability to remain visible and criticism over the quality of its virtual events, many of which were plagued by technical difficulties, Biden resumed in-person events in late May with a series of speeches to small audiences and church visits in Delaware and Philadelphia, all within a short drive of his Wilmington, Delaware, home. And in recent weeks, he’s held one or two small public events per week to slam Trump and roll out his policy proposals.

Among the pandemic and economic policy plans that Biden has discussed in his speeches is his “Build Back Better” plan focused on reviving American manufacturing. The Biden policy team worked closely with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in formulating the plan, sources told NBC News earlier this month, the latest step in a growing alliance with his former competitor that has prompted Biden to shift leftward on several key issues and essentially adopt policy plans originally pushed by Warren.

He's also continued his virtual events, but they are highly scripted, limiting opportunities for the candidate to make blunders.

“He’s running a disciplined campaign. He’s doing more than a lot of people give him credit for,” GOP strategist Alex Conant said. “He’s speaking, really, as little as possible, and rolling out a very strategic and very in-depth series of policy proposals that check a lot of boxes with constituents he needs to win, like the progressive wing of the party, while at the same time, not saying anything that’s going to strongly turn off swing voters.”

Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, added: “He’s played it just about right.”

“During the teeth of the pandemic, he didn’t appear much, but when he did appear, he looked presidential and he said substantial things,” Rendell said. “And even now that he’s out there a little more, he is still saving his appearances for things that are very important to the nation.”

The Biden team has also seen a surge in fundraising prowess (Biden and the Democratic Party have outraised Trump and the GOP for two consecutive months) and has quietly accelerated its staffing in key swing states. In addition, according to an internal campaign memo obtained earlier this week by NBC News, he is ramping up television ad spending. Biden’s latest ads have focused squarely on Trump’s response to the pandemic, and his own newly-released economic plans.

And critically, as many of even his fellow Democrats acknowledge, Biden hasn’t made any egregious verbal errors in weeks.

“It's a classic do no harm strategy,” Payne said. “He hasn’t given Trump anything to hit at. That's just good politics.”

Biden hasn’t received sustained blowback for any remarks since May, when he told a popular radio host and Black voters in an interview that "you ain’t Black" if they back Trump's re-election. He quickly apologized.

In addition, Trump, whose “Crooked Hillary” label for his 2016 opponent stuck and appeared to resonate with many swing voters, has failed repeatedly, so far, at defining his 2020 challenger.

Trump, who spent the better part of the Democratic primary demeaning Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” has recently pivoted to tweeting about “Corrupt Joe,” and has leaned into attacks accusing Biden of holding anti-police positions that will result in higher crime.

Trump and his campaign have accused Biden of wanting to “abolish the suburbs" and "destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream” because, they say, he wants to defund the police. Biden has said he does not support defunding the police, but that he is in favor of making federal aid to law enforcement agencies conditional in hope of creating incentives for police reforms.

In a statement to NBC News, the Trump campaign reiterated this message.

"When given the choice between the principles upon which our country was founded and Joe Biden’s embrace of socialism and anarchy, voters will re-elect President Trump to keep putting America First," campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said.

Strategists, however, have pointed out that voters largely blame Trump for the recent unrest, because he is in power, and that Democrats, dating back to the 2018 midterm elections, have performed strongly with suburban voters.

“We’re less than 100 days from the election and he still hasn't clearly branded Biden. Their angle of attack seems to change by the day,” Conant, the GOP strategist, said.

And while Biden’s favorable ratings aren’t sky-high, they are steady, hovering around 45 percent since March, according to Quinnipiac polls in recent months.

Trump’s approval ratings, on the other hand, plummeted this month to 36 percent, the latest Quinnipiac polling released earlier this month showed, and voters said they preferred Biden when it comes to the handling of a crisis (57 percent to 38 percent), the pandemic (59 percent to 35 percent), health care (58 percent to 35 percent), and addressing racial inequality (62 percent to 30 percent).

Voters also gave Biden an edge when it came to whom they prefer to handle the economy (50 percent to 45 percent) — a significant reversal from previous months on an issue Trump had owned before the pandemic. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this month, however, showed that a majority of registered voters still approved of the president's handling of the economy.

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesperson Jamal Brown said that over the next 95 days, Biden is "going to continue engaging with voters about what he would do as president to improve their lives, end our public health and economic crisis, and act on meaningful reforms to confront systemic racism."

But with Election Day still months away — a stretch of time that will include two conventions, three presidential debates, one vice presidential debate and the enduring challenges of raging public health and economic crises — the race is bound to tilt and sway many times over before November.

That may prove more challenging for Biden.

“As we get closer, there will be growing pressure on him to do more interviews, to put himself in more spontaneous situations,” Conant said. “Presidential campaigns get harder, not easier, period, the closer you get to the finish line."