In the 19th century, presidential campaigns were quite different. Ambition for the office was seen as unseemly, so candidates could not be perceived by the voters as actually wanting to be president. William Henry Harrison actually took to the stump in 1840, but he was a famous general wanting to be seen by the public. He never mentioned the presidency in any of his speeches. Nor did another Whig Party General Zachary Taylor, who was also in demand as a speaker.
In private, neither man made any secret of their ambition and they approved of surrogates who made speeches on their behalf. But it wasn’t until the historic campaign of 1896 that a presidential candidate took his case to the American people. William Jennings Bryan, who had electrified the country with his “Cross of Gold” Democratic convention speech, hit the road in what even today would be seen as a breakneck speaking schedule. He was opposed by the former governor of Ohio, William McKinley.
McKinley pursued what was known as then and now as a “front porch” campaign strategy. He rarely left his home and got his message out by writing public letters that were published in friendly newspapers. The contrast with Bryan’s whirlwind speaking campaign was striking but in less than 20 years, the “front porch campaign” was history.
Joe Biden is an old man suffering from mental and physical decline and is forced by age and circumstance to forego public appearances and campaign events. That’s the message the Trump campaign is trying to get out. And for whatever reason, Biden is playing right into that messaging.
Biden’s problem is that even if he is physically and mentally capable of campaigning, he’s not going anywhere or saying much of anything. Part of that is restrictions from the coronavirus. But part of it is a deliberate strategy. Biden believes he’s ahead — perhaps comfortably ahead — and keeping a low profile would normally be sound political advice.
But when a candidate is struggling with the perception of mental and physical competence, is it really the right move?
“I think a lot of people thought, ‘If Obama can get on a plane and travel, why can’t Biden?’” said one Democratic strategist, who pointed to the former president’s trip from Massachusetts to Philadelphia for his prime-time address.
“I know we all believe in science and building a contrast with Republicans on COVID, I get that. But no one I know is stuck at home. Folks are moving around. They’re traveling. Some schools are reopening,” the strategist said.
“I don’t know how sustainable this is for Biden.”
Republicans are derisively referring to Biden’s “basement campaign” and with good reason. Trump is on the attack looking to draw stark contrasts between himself and Biden. While the Democratic Convention was happening, Trump traveled to Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — three states where Trump is extremely competitive and could tip his way with just a few thousand Biden doubters.
Trump has been on the attack over the issue. His campaign has put up billboards around Wisconsin asking “Where’s Joe?” The Trump campaign also deployed Vice President Pence to the state hoping to narrow Biden’s lead.
“Biden and the Democrats have greatly disrespected the Great State of Wisconsin by not even paying a small visit to Milwaukee, the designated site of the DNC,” the president wrote on Twitter. “The State & City worked very hard to make sure things would be good. Not nice.”
Ordinarily, Biden’s strategy of staying home and keeping his mouth shut would be a good play. But it gives Trump a huge opening to define Biden’s reluctance to campaign any way he wishes. And Trump wishes to hammer home the point that electing Biden is a risk Americans can’t afford to take.
I think that before the campaign is over and as America begins to get back to some kind of normalcy, Biden will emerge from his basement and got out on the road. His natural proclivity to be a human gaffe-making machine will give Trump plenty of openings. But the questions being asked today about why Biden is stuck in his basement will stay with voters and is a big reason why this is going to end up being a close election.