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What virtual campaigning means for Trump and Biden

Both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have set records with their 2020 campaign fundraising. But the pandemic has drastically altered how that money is spent, with events moving from in-person to online. Guy Cecil, political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, and John Brabender, senior advisor for Rick Santorum’s 2016 bid, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The November election is just about 100 days away, and both presidential candidates have been raising record-setting amounts of money.

    The pandemic has drastically changed how campaigns are spending that money, with the race moving online and relying less on in-person rallies.

    Today, the Biden campaign released a digital video featuring the presumptive Democratic nominee in a 17-minute conversation with his former boss, Barack Obama.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    We have to change the way in which we deal with allowing people an opportunity to make a living.

  • Former President Barack Obama:


  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    That includes child care. That includes turning — making significant investments in infrastructure, so people can make, not just a living wage, but a union wage, making sure we have — build up an entire new public health system, and making sure everybody has health care.

    And, well, now we have a chance. We can add a public option now.

  • Former President Barack Obama:


  • Former Vice President Joe Biden:

    But this guy is in court, in the middle of a pandemic, trying to take away the protection for 100 million people who have preexisting conditions.

    I don't think he has any sense of empathy or any — I don't think he can associate at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    While President Trump has not held a rally in person in over a month, his campaign has turned to live online conversations featuring many of the president's closest advisers.

  • Tim Murtaugh:

    Look, this is Joe Biden. This is a man who wants to be president. And he can't find the time in his little video to say he's proud of this country. We have never lived up to it, he says.

  • Pam Tucker:

    But I don't think that, if Joe Biden was president, we would see these types of gains. It is because of Donald Trump's policies and what he's done to help our country grow again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To look at how the pandemic has changed the way campaigns reach voters now, we turn to Guy Cecil. He was the political director for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign for president. He's now the chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic political action committee.

    And John Brabender, he was a senior adviser for Rick Santorum's 2016 presidential campaign. He is the chief strategist at BrabenderCox, a political marketing firm.

    It's good to see you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

    John Brabender, I'm going to start with you because of the news breaking tonight, President Trump announcing that the Jacksonville convention is completely going away as a result of the pandemic.

    You're a Republican. What does this say about how Republicans are going to nominate their president for reelection?

  • John Brabender:

    Well, I think, thinking of it as a strategist, I see this as a bit of a disappointment and disadvantage for President Trump.

    I mean, this is not a fireside chat president. This is not a press conference president. This is a large rally, live events. We know he feeds off that, unscripted. And now he's forced to turn to a more mundane way of just a small screen, talking to people, and that's not who this president is.

    So I'm sure that it's frustrating for the Trump campaign at this point, but it's the new new. It's the reality. Campaigns are going to have to adjust, and they're going to have to find some way to make it interesting, not just something that looks too typical these days.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Guy Cecil, the Democrats have pretty much said all along that they knew there was going to be a smaller convention event.

    Does this give one side or another an advantage, you think, at the conventions?

  • Guy Cecil:

    Well, I think the advantage that Democrats have is that the Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign have now had weeks to prepare for a different kind of convention.

    And I think that preparation is going to bear itself out, whereas, with the Republicans, I mean, Donald Trump has been delaying and waiting and hoping, with a lot of bluster, saying he was going to bring people together regardless.

    And I think what he recognizes now is that, with his numbers plummeting in Florida, he needed to make a U-turn and move in a different direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk, both of you, about how the campaign is different because of the pandemic.

    John Brabender, you can't — the candidates can't go to people in person. They have got to communicate online. What does that mean? What is lost by that?

  • John Brabender:

    Well, we don't really get to kick the tires.

    Too much of the campaign now is going to be edited versions of what we see with the candidate. And, again, I think this is a frustration for the Trump campaign. I think they believe that, if Joe Biden is forced to not talk with the teleprompter, is not forced to have edited content, where they can take mistakes out, that people would see really some of the problems of why he shouldn't be president.

    I think the opposite is true with President Trump. He's a live candidate. He can be entertaining. He can be interesting. And he knows how to steal the news cycle, which is much easier to do with a big rally than it is online.

    So, the real problem they're going to have is, how do they make effective content that competes with HBO and Netflix and public broadcasting?


  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Guy Cecil, I mean, what are the challenges of trying to make a campaign compelling online?

    We saw that, I think some people are saying, relatively clever twosome between President Obama and Vice President Biden. What kinds of pressure does this put on the campaigns to make it interesting?

  • Guy Cecil:

    Well, I think the first big pressure is the fact there is a lot of in-person organizing that can't happen. And campaigns now have to move to more of a digital organizing philosophy, where they're using platforms to reach out to friends and neighbors.

    And I think the most interesting way that we can talk to people is by talking to them about the issues they care about and letting them hear from people they care about. And that's why I think the role that a lot of independent groups and outside organizations have played to organize their membership, to get those that are interested in their particular issues, is really critical to the vice president's success.

    And, really, it's what 2017, 2018, and 2019 have been about, as Democrats prepare for this election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And maybe picking up on that, but, John Brabender, you were telling us earlier that you don't think the campaigns have done a great job so far figuring out how digitally to be persuasive, to personalize their appeal to voters.

    What did you mean by that?

  • John Brabender:


    Look, they're excellent at raising money online. They're excellent at talking to supporters and getting them to want to be active in campaigns and so forth. What they haven't become are great content producers.

    And I particularly think of the 18-to-30-year-old voters, which is actually going to be a bigger part of the electorate this time than they were four years ago. They grew up digital. They're not watching cable news. They're more likely to determine their political ideology watching "The Daily Show" than they are CNN or FOX News.

    And they expect content to fit something that is shareable within their communities. I'm not seeing that happening particularly well with either campaign. And I think there's an opening for whatever campaign effectively starts doing that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Guy Cecil how do you see the campaigns doing on that front in terms of tailoring the message, whether it's the younger generation or the older folks, tailoring it in a way that's going to be capture people's imagination?

  • Guy Cecil:

    Well, I think there's two important parts here.

    Number one, we know that voters under 35 are strongly supporting Joe Biden. And so we have a real opportunity here to reach out to those voters.

    But I also think it's where you see a strategic difference between the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign. For the last three years, the Trump campaign has used online to raise money, sell MAGA hats, and really to just talk to their base, whereas groups like Priorities, the group that I lead, have actually been advertising in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, talking to persuadable voters, and talking to those voters that sat out in 2016.

    And so I think this is not only a tactical difference in terms of how we're talking about using online. It's a strategic difference between solely trying to get out your base vs. trying to build the biggest broadest coalition of fair-minded voters possible.

    And I think we will see that reflected in the type of content that gets run over the next three months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, very quickly, in just a few seconds, to each one of you, the fact that there's — that early voting is going to be such a big factor this time — a lot of people don't want to show up at the polls in person, John Brabender — how much more pressure does that put on the campaigns to do something different?

  • John Brabender:

    A great deal, because they're going to do a lot of modeling to figure out who's likely to vote early, and make sure they're reaching them right when those ballots do come.

    And then, second of all, they're going to monitor who already turned in a ballot and understand that any dollars advertised to them is pretty much wasted dollars.

    So, I think it'll be — from a targeting standpoint, it'll be huge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Guy Cecil.

  • Guy Cecil:

    Yes, well, there's two things.

    One is the misinformation that's being spread by the president himself about vote by mail, which I think ultimately will be counterproductive for his own supporters.

    And the thing that we're going to focus the most on, besides moving people to apply for their mail-in ballot, is making sure they have accurate information about how, where and when they can vote, whether it's by mail, or early voting, or in person on Election Day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to follow. We're so delighted to have both of you join us today.

    Guy Cecil, John Brabender, thank you very much.

  • John Brabender:

    Thank you.

  • Guy Cecil:

    Great to be here.

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