On eve of another primary day, presidential campaigns adapt to new rules

The Democratic presidential campaigns are scrambling to win over voters during an unprecedented crisis.
Image: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden return to the stage after a commercial break in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios on March 15, 2020, in Washington.Evan Vucci / AP

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By Marianna Sotomayor, Gary Grumbach and Amanda Golden

WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus continues to spread, one prescription that has yet to be written is one for Democratic presidential campaigns scrambling to win over voters during the crisis.

While the outbreak has led to mass closures across the country, Tuesday’s presidential primaries in key battleground states of Florida, Arizona and Illinois are still on (Ohio's governor is calling for that state's primary to be moved to June 2). That’s led the campaigns of both former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to mobilize support digitally while telling staffers to work from home.

The restrictions put in place by both campaigns to step physically away from the campaign trail come as the two men face perhaps the last day of major primary contests. Biden has moved into a sizable delegate lead, and a strong showing for him in the Tuesday contests could effectively end the nominating battle, making it all but impossible for Sanders to catch up.

Both campaigns are doing what they can to remain competitive ahead of Tuesday’s primaries, while continuously adapting to the circumstances at hand.

Traditional campaign events — large public rallies and town hall meetings — have been jettisoned, leaving the candidates to campaign via internet livestreams and modern “fireside chats.” Biden and Sanders will almost exclusively be seen on the airwaves and online now that door knocking has been replaced by more phone banking and surrogate events have become dial-in town halls, all in an effort to practice social distancing.

The lack of public appearances has made it doubly hard for Sanders to pick up steam ahead of Tuesday’s contests. Big public rallies in front of enthusiastic supporters have long been a selling point for the Sanders campaign, something the candidate acknowledged Sunday night in the CNN debate.

“I love doing rallies and we bring many thousands of people out to our rallies,” Sanders said. “I enjoy it very much. We’re not doing that right now.”

Yet Sanders’s advisers believe the campaign has been well prepared to succeed during this challenging time, pointing to their investments in digital and social media early on in the campaign.

“It has affected our campaign,” Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir said of the crisis Saturday night during a livestream “fireside chat” with Sanders from his home in Burlington, Vermont.

“We have moved to a completely remote operation,” Shakir said. “We don't have offices because we've deemed them to be a public health risk for our own staff, we're heeding the public health experts on this so we've moved away from field offices and headquarter offices and everyone's working remotely. But this campaign, more so than any campaign potentially in presidential history, is best suited and prepared for this kind of a campaign.”

The fireside chat drew 100,000 concurrent views online across digital platforms. The Sanders campaign has been working on other ways to build community while also following the CDC’s guidelines, and planned to host a digital rally with Sanders and campaign surrogates Monday night.

“The senator feels that community, especially in a crisis like this, is important,” Sanders communications director Mike Casca told NBC News.

Biden, for his part, held a virtual town hall with Illinois voters Friday evening. But it hit a few technical snags that initially involved a garbled-voiced Biden that was not immediately published to Facebook Live after several delays. Once the video did begin to stream more than halfway through the town hall, it ended roughly four minutes after it began.

“Well, I’m sorry this has been such a disjointed effort here because of the connections,” a frustrated Biden said before wrapping the town hall.

Asked about the technical difficulties and overall strategy involved, Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo said: “It’s a brave new world we’re dealing with. It’s like building an airplane on the runway a little bit.”

Still, Biden campaign officials insist they have shifted their priorities to a digital strategy.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, in her first memo to staff since becoming Biden’s campaign manager last week, addressed the shift.

“The functions of this campaign — disseminating the vice president’s message, educating voters, and earning their votes — will not change,” she wrote. “Our challenge now is to do that in new and creative ways that mitigate public health risk. We are confident that this team can rise to this challenge.”

The campaign has indicated that Biden will continue to hold virtual town halls, including one scheduled Monday with his wife, Jill, where they will field questions from voters in primary states.

Jill Biden, already a top campaign surrogate, has also begun moving her efforts online. She held a pre-debate online watch party with Women for Biden and is making get out to vote calls with volunteers living in Tuesday’s primary states.

The Biden campaign says people should expect to see the candidate on television more often given travel constraints, and that they will rely on their text banks and phone application to mobilize phone banks and target voters with voter turnout information ahead of Tuesday.

The Sanders campaign held a national call with volunteers and supporters on Saturday night, led by organizing director Misty Rebik, leaning on their efforts to use digital canvassing. While Sanders fell short in many Super Tuesday states, Rebik told volunteers that voters in those states who were contacted through the campaign’s “BERN” iPhone application were the most likely to end up voting for Sanders.

The campaign-enforced limitations on large public gatherings has led the Biden campaign to rely on an extensive team of surrogates. Tapping into their pool of over 2,000 endorsers, the Biden campaign will be assembling surrogates to hop on tele-town halls with constituents and appear on local TV stations across the country.

Over the weekend, congressional campaign surrogates hosted numerous tele-town halls across Tuesday’s primary states where surrogates were able to field questions from voters. Some calls were themed, like South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn’s call with Florida faith leaders, and Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly’s call with Chicago residents addressing gun safety.

In a tele-town hall with Ohio residents Sunday, Reps. Tim Ryan and Marcy Kaptur — both Biden supporters — reassured participants that polling stations will be thoroughly sanitized while pitching to voters why a President Biden would be needed in a time of crisis.

“This is the backdrop to this primary election and to Tuesday that explains why we need Joe Biden. I mean he’s been through Zika, he’s been through the Ebola scare, been through the financial crisis,” Ryan said.

Public events scheduled for this weekend were also moved to phone calls, including multiple Latino-targeted outreach “Todos Con Biden” events in Miami.

The urgency is also felt among staffers who are relying on old, but common communications tactics of conference calls, emailing and texting to brainstorm new ideas and execute projects as best as technology allows. While staffers describe the new work-from-home lifestyle as boring compared to the lively office atmosphere, staffers from both campaigns say it is firing them up to go back to the drawing board to reassess and best adapt to the circumstances to campaign forward.