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Trump-Biden Election Day showdown ends with barrage of campaign stops. Does it matter?

Hillary Clinton probably didn't lose because she skipped Wisconsin, and if Biden loses, it probably won't be because he stayed home too much.
Image: Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden Campaigns In Georgia
Joe Biden speaks at the Mountain Top Inn and Resort in Warm Springs, Ga., on Oct. 27.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Suppose Donald Trump beats Joe Biden in the presidential election. Theories will abound as to why Biden lost the race. At the top of the list, surely, would be this one: "Biden didn't campaign hard enough. He barely even left his basement!"

Consider how much time and money the candidates spend flying across the country to hold rallies and meet voters. They must know what they’re doing, right?

It would be 2020's version of a familiar refrain from 2016: "No wonder Hillary Clinton lost — she didn't even visit Wisconsin!"

There are two problems with this argument. First, Biden has spent plenty of time on the campaign trail in 2020 — racking up nearly as many visits as Trump, in fact. Second, my research shows that candidates usually don't win votes through campaign visits — meaning that Clinton probably didn't lose because she skipped Wisconsin and that if Biden loses, it probably won't be because he stayed home too much.

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As part of my research agenda on the strategy and effectiveness of presidential campaign visits, I have been tracking every visit made by Trump, Biden and their vice presidential running mates this fall. This allows me to answer the question: Has Biden been missing in action on the campaign trail? Simply put, no.

By my count, Biden made 57 campaign visits in September and October. Trump made just eight more visits, with 65. Biden visited fewer states (10) than Trump (15). But Biden campaigned more often (14 times) than Trump (13 times) in Pennsylvania, the top battleground state, and they visited Florida 10 times each.

For that matter, Biden made more campaign visits (57) than his much younger running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (46), as well as Vice President Mike Pence (52).

Trump would presumably have racked up even more visits had he not been sidelined by the coronavirus in early October. But Biden nearly matched him in September, with 24 campaign visits to Trump's 26. At the same time, Biden far outpaced Pence (16) and Harris (12). So much for being locked up in the basement.

So why do people think Biden got badly outhustled on the campaign trail? One reason may be that Biden had some large gaps in his schedule — for instance, he held no campaign events during a five-day stretch in mid-October. But that has been more the exception than the rule. Another, more important reason people think Trump was far more active than Biden may be the comparative sizes and scopes of their events.

Trump typically held a massive rally in one city before flying off to do the same in another city or state. By doing so, he not only literally covered more ground but also reached more voters both in person and via local media coverage in multiple markets on the same day.

In contrast, Biden and Harris often made multiple stops within the same city or media market while interacting with fewer people. This is by design. Biden has criticized Trump's large — and largely maskless — rallies as potential "super-spreader events."

Biden said he's trying to set an example by holding events with smaller, socially distanced crowds, including intimate gatherings in supporters' backyards and drive-in rallies. The Biden campaign has even refrained from publicly disclosing the location of its events in order to limit crowd size and maintain safe distancing.

In short, Biden has been holding nearly as many in-person campaign events as Trump, and more than Harris or Pence. But the Democratic candidates' events don't make as big a splash as those of their Republican counterparts. That's why it feels like they're campaigning less aggressively.

But does that matter? It may seem obvious that presidential campaign visits win votes. Just consider how much time and money the candidates spend flying across the country to hold rallies and meet voters. They must know what they're doing, right?

As a political scientist, I know that the conventional wisdom about presidential campaigns isn't always right. Part of my job is to put those assumptions to the test. Take the 2016 election. Many people think Clinton lost to Trump because she didn't visit the key swing state of Wisconsin. But according to my research, that's probably not correct.

In a journal article, I estimated the effects of campaign visits on vote share in the 2016 election. First, I tracked the number of presidential and vice presidential campaign visits per county in 2016 and the vote percentage each party won in that county. Next, I used the statistical modeling technique of linear regression to figure out whether, and by how much, a candidate's visits were associated with an increase in vote share — after controlling for other factors, such as demographics and past election results in that county.

My analysis indicates that Clinton generally didn't win a higher percentage of the vote in those counties in battleground states that she did visit. Remarkably, neither did Trump. This was true even when focusing on specific states — with one exception. According to my estimates, Clinton gained 1.2 percentage points at the county level for each visit she made to Pennsylvania. But her visits had no such effect in Michigan, Ohio or other battleground states.

Most previous studies also find that campaign visits typically have little, if any, discernible effect on election outcomes. There are some instances in which they seem to have helped. For instance, studies of the 1948 election indicate that Harry Truman gained votes from his campaign visits, while Thomas Dewey didn't. Likewise, in 1996, Bill Clinton's campaign visits won him votes, while Bob Dole's didn't. This suggests that the very best campaigners may gain votes through these visits, at least in some states or among certain audiences.

But why do campaign visits usually fail to win votes? For one thing, campaigns in general don't change many voters' minds; mostly, they reinforce voters' pre-existing partisan or candidate preferences. Indeed, many people who attend campaign events are partisans who have come to cheer on their candidate, not undecided voters who are open to persuasion.

Despite what you’ve heard — and will hear a lot more if he loses — Joe Biden has not been miles behind Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Actually, he’s been keeping a safe distance.

Any effect on persuadable voters, therefore, is likely to come about indirectly, by mobilizing supporters in attendance to become campaign activists or by spreading the campaign's message via local media coverage and social media activity.

Because presidential candidates typically campaign in the same states and in roughly equal proportions, the effects of campaign visits also may cancel each other out. In rare cases, one candidate may be far less active on the campaign trail than another, at least in certain states, thus risking an electoral disadvantage. Wisconsin in 2016 is perhaps one example. But the Biden 2020 campaign isn't.

Despite what you've heard — and will hear a lot more if he loses — Joe Biden hasn't been miles behind Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Actually, he's been keeping a safe distance.