When Joe Biden came to Pennsylvania last week, President Donald Trump was watching.
He tweeted a photo of Biden speaking at the Darby Borough municipal building in Delaware County, which appeared to show only two people in attendance. “Joe Biden’s rally. ZERO enthusiasm!” Trump wrote.
In reality, it wasn’t a rally, and only 25 people were allowed inside the gymnasium due to coronavirus precautions. Since the campaign spaced chairs six feet apart for social distancing, only two people were in the frame. Biden’s speech was livestreamed and broadcast on several cable networks.
“It made me sick to see it used like that,” said Kirsten Hess, whose husband and daughter are in the photo. Hess, a bookstore owner in Lehigh County, had been invited by the Biden campaign. Earlier in the day, she met with him and three other small-business owners.
“It obviously was not a rally,” she said. “And I was happy about that. I felt safe.”
As Trump resumes his signature campaign rallies, Biden has done the opposite, holding more modest gatherings, including three in the past month in and around Philadelphia. They showcase one of Biden’s strengths: his personal warmth. But they’re also limited in their reach and not always photogenic. Visuals from the events have been weaponized by the Trump campaign.
But Biden’s events have also telegraphed how he’s approaching the coronavirus pandemic and the kind of president he says he’d be: cautious and responsible. No individual photos with Biden are allowed, attendees must sit six feet apart, and journalists have their temperature taken before entry.
“If each of us could have taken personal pictures with him, that reach of our circles and of our circles’ circles, that’s exponential in campaigning for Joe Biden,” Hess said. “The staff knows that’s a missed opportunity, but they’re making the decision to keep him and everyone he interacts with safe.”
There’s a growing sense in Democratic circles that what Biden is doing is working, for now. Polls show a wide swath of voters are wary of a quick reopening of the economy, a caution reflected in how Biden campaigns. And while Biden has at times faded to the background, with Trump’s leadership the primary focus of the campaign right now, Biden is rising in the polls. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Wednesday found Biden leading Trump by 14 points nationally.
Because the gatherings are so controlled, they’ve also shielded Biden from interactions with angry protesters or news conferences in which reporters could pepper him with unexpected questions. The Trump campaign now emails daily reminders of how long it’s been since Biden held a news conference — 83 days by its count. The Biden campaign countered that the former vice president has done dozens of one-on-one interviews.
“By controlling that size of the event, you probably are minimizing” gaffes,” said Scott Richardson, a caterer from Swarthmore who met Biden at last week’s small business round table. “But I also believe that he is a vulnerable part of our society — 77 [years old] — and you know, if he’s going to be possibly our future president, they got to keep him safe.”
In the last three weeks, Biden met briefly with elected officials at City Hall before delivering a speech on protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. He used a visit to West Philadelphia to debut his plan for reopening the economy safely, and he met with the small business owners last week in Yeadon. He’s scheduled to meet with a handful of voters Thursday in Lancaster to talk about health care.
Why so much attention for the region? Philadelphia is close to Biden’s home in Wilmington, and Pennsylvania is a key state in November.
None of the Philadelphia-area voters said they knew how they were chosen for the events this month, but they all in some way reflect either the Biden campaign’s messages or its electoral strategies. Three are African American business owners. Hess owns a book shop in Lehigh County, a battleground part of the state. Richardson, who is 64 and lives in Swarthmore, said he voted for Trump but no longer supports him.
Given the scaled down campaign, they’ve had more direct access to Biden in the last month than almost anyone outside his staff.
“I’m going to be honest, I have no idea how I got picked,” said Tiffany Easley, who owns NV My Eyewear in West Philadelphia. She found Biden surprisingly personable. “You know, I’m not a person who really gets into politics too much, but he’s funny,” she said. “He’s a hilarious guy.”
Easley said she also found him helpful. She brought up how hard it’s been keeping her store afloat during the shutdown. At the end of the meeting, after cameras stopped rolling, Biden followed up with her, suggesting several grant programs.
“I think he handles people well,” Easley said. “He adapts to who he’s speaking with. Being a business owner in customer service, I see that’s actually what he’s doing — customer service. Being able to adapt and sympathize with people is the most important because you’re not always going to agree but you can relate.”
Hess said she was struck by Biden’s ability to listen to people discuss an array of topics for long stretches, and then succinctly repeat back to them the crux of what they were trying to say.
“I was... I’ll say it, babbling,” she said. “He was able to pull what I was saying into a concise statement and say it back at me so well that I said ‘Bingo,’ and pointed at him afterward, which is highly embarrassing,” she said with a laugh.
“So that tells me he’s not only paying attention to me but his intellect is there, as some people seem to claim it’s not,” Hess added.
Three months of virtual campaign moments include several of Biden staring silently at a rolling camera and other instances of awkward behavior or technical glitches. These, too, have been shared widely by Trump supporters, who question Biden’s health, stamina, and mental acuity.
But those people who have sat down with Biden lately described a tuned-in, empathetic candidate.
“Does he fire at the speed he used to fire at?” asked Richardson. “Probably not, but older can be wiser.”
Tamika Anderson was unsure of what to expect at the Biden event she was invited to at the Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia this month. She’d been laid off from her job as a cleaner in March, trying to support herself, her son, and two grandsons on unemployment benefits. Her father died of coronavirus complications in April, but she was unable to visit him in his nursing home or at the hospital.
The discussion topic was the virus’ impact. She had plenty to say about that but didn’t want to be a pawn in a political stunt. When the discussion started, she said it was Biden, seated to her right, who put her at ease.