In interesting times, Democrats must adapt to win

In interesting times, Democrats must adapt to win
© Getty Images

Not long ago, the hashtag #WhereIsJoeBiden began circulating on Twitter. In the face of nearly around-the-clock coverage of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee for president was absent from the airwaves. This meant, in this unusual time of shelter-in-place, he was also absent from arguably the most pressing national crisis since 9-11.

Initially, it was a matter of logistics: Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE needed to develop the infrastructure to engage in what evolved quickly: our transition to virtual existence. In the weeks since, Biden has been a consistent presence on national television; he has launched a podcast and an e-newsletter. Broadcasting from the basement of his home in Wilmington, Del., Biden’s engagement has ramped up. This is important in predominant part because Biden understands how best to respond to a public health threat. It was no surprise that the first guest on his podcast was Ron Klain, who has held a number of important professional positions, but perhaps none as critical as leading America’s response to the Ebola outbreak.

COVID-19 will fundamentally alter the social, economic, and political life of the country. It’s only a matter of degree to which it will do so. Sixty percent of Americans say they are not comfortable returning to their normal routine if social distancing guidelines are lifted on April 30.

ADVERTISEMENT

It is almost assured that the general election campaign will take place predominantly in the virtual space. Rallies, rope-lines, selfies, in-person field organizing and fundraising have already given way to Zoom meetings, Instagram and Facebook Live — and creative production on YouTube. Embracing data science in politics is nothing new, but it will have greater significance in a time of social distancing and shelter-in-place.

Trump feeds on in-person rallies, yet 2016 illustrated his ability to effectively influence voters online. More than three years have passed, and Trump’s substantial advantage still exists. The Biden campaign had a small digital operation during the primary, and although it has since started to expand, Democrats remain worried.

Recently, the Democratic National Committee placed a $22 million ad buy on YouTube aimed at 14 battleground states. Groups supporting Biden have developed a series of blistering online ads featuring Trump’s erratic, angry, and false rhetoric about the administration’s response to the pandemic.

Today, Trump’s re-election hinges on his response to coronavirus. His polling remains below 50 percent; he trails Biden in Florida, his home state and a state he must win in November. Fifty-five percent of Americans say his administration has done a poor job responding to the pandemic. However, the general election is seven months away.

“Adapt or die,” the famous Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane said when he transformed baseball through metrics-based player analysis. It’s an urgent rallying cry for the Democrats.

ADVERTISEMENT

Biden and Sanders must unify. Yeah, yeah, everyone says this, but in this context, I’m focused on digital infrastructure. For two consecutive cycles, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Angst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (I-Vt.) built a prolific online fundraising apparatus. Cumulatively, he raised more in January and February 2020 than Biden raised in all of 2019. Biden’s fundraising has improved, but Sanders is the gatekeeper of one of the most important fundraising and organizing lists in Democratic politics. He has said confidently that his digital infrastructure is “unmatched.” The Democrats need this to happen. It’s not about Sanders simply handing over the architecture. It’s about employing the tools, messaging, and talent necessary to successfully integrate it into Biden’s general election operation.

Embrace a virtual convention. Recently, Biden acknowledged the Democratic National Convention may need to be held virtually. Just do it, Democrats. Don’t get me wrong, for delegates, media, and donors, conventions are terrific in-person theater and lots of fun. For the host city (I lived in Philadelphia in 2016 and was a delegate to the Democratic convention), it’s a reputational and economic booster shot. For the candidate, there’s nothing like the energy of delivering a speech to 50,000 cheering delegates. COVID-19 has changed the circumstances, and going virtual would be an historic public health and leadership moment. The contrast with Trump and the RNC would be stark. Conventions are predominantly ceremonial anyway, and most of what is valuable is developed for a television audience. Would a virtual convention demand creativity and pristine execution? Sure. In the face of coronavirus is that a reason not to do it? Of course not.

Wage an immediate and public battle to expand voting rights. Don’t sugarcoat it: Republicans have been laser focused on denying people — especially people of color — the opportunity to vote for years. The five conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. In the face of coronavirus, that same court recently overruled a decision in Wisconsin to extend the deadline for absentee voting. Typically, Milwaukee — which is majority black and Latino — has 180 voting sites on election day: Last Tuesday, there were five. Imagine the constriction of voting sites in November all over the country. In March, Texas closed more than 700 polling sites mostly in minority communities. The Democrats pushed for billions in funding to expand voting in the most recent stimulus bill; $400 million was included in the final legislation. It’s not enough. Trump, who enjoys saying exactly what he means, admitted that making it easier to vote would hurt the Republican Party.

Prepare now for the October surprise: Round 2 of COVID-19. Perhaps the Trump administration gets its act together and mitigation coupled with dramatically expanded testing suppresses the spread of coronavirus. Or, maybe it’s a long, hot summer and we get lucky for a while. Regardless, Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Israeli president receives COVID-19 booster shot AstraZeneca CEO: 'Not clear yet' if boosters are needed MORE anticipates the re-emergence of the virus during the October-November period. Biden was spot-on when, in January, he authored an op-ed warning Trump about coronavirus. The Democrats shouldn’t dither. Assume Fauci is right. Guess who has a plan for that? That’s right: Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“May you live in interesting times,” is the famous Chinese curse. We do, and as a result, the 2020 presidential election will be unlike anything America has experienced. It would be a terrible mistake for the Democrats to presume Trump’s inept response to the coronavirus will alone sink his re-election. Other alarms are sounding.

Blake Rutherford is the former chief of staff and special advisor to the attorneys general of Arkansas and Pennsylvania. He was a delegate from Pennsylvania for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He also worked on the Clinton-Gore ’96 presidential campaign, the 53rd Presidential Inaugural Committee, and the Gore 2000 presidential campaign, among others. He recently served as a senior advisor at Laurel Strategies and as a member in the Government and Regulatory Law Group at the Cozen O’Connor law firm in Washington, D.C. Previously he was vice president of McLarty Companies, led by former Clinton White House chief of staff Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, where he provided strategic counsel, executive management, communications strategy, and legal guidance. Follow him on Twitter @blakerutherford