Biden’s Limited Campaign Schedule: Wise Tactic or Misguided Gamble?

WILMINGTON, Del. — On the Friday before Election Day, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be in the Midwest, campaigning in both Iowa and Wisconsin as he presses his closing argument.

In any other year, and for any other campaign, that would be a normal — even gentle — day of travel in the homestretch of a bitterly fought, high-stakes presidential race. But compared with many of Mr. Biden’s days this month, and even a few this week, it’s the equivalent of a barnstorm.

On Sunday, Mr. Biden held no in-person campaign events, straying from his home in the Wilmington area only for church. On Monday, he ventured out just briefly to greet supporters across the state line in Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, six days before Election Day, he was back in Delaware, hardly a battleground state, giving remarks on health care and voting himself. In between, he traveled to Georgia, putting pressure on President Trump in a closely contested state, and he is slated to campaign in Florida Thursday headed into an intense final weekend.

“The traditional handbook would have you barnstorming all over the country to show energy and eagerness,” said David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist to Barack Obama. “But this isn’t a normal election.”

When the history of the Biden campaign is written, the measured pace he maintained at the end of the race may be remembered as evidence that he wisely tuned out conventional wisdom in an extraordinary year. In victory, supporters will see him as having offered voters a steady alternative to the tumult of the Trump era through every aspect of his candidacy, including by making carefully planned appearances that met the mood of a country in the throes of a pandemic.

But if Mr. Biden loses, his schedule in recent weeks — and all of the days he spent in Delaware this month — is almost certain to be the source of overwhelming Democratic second-guessing. In the last ten days, a period that also contained a presidential debate, he has held his own campaign events in just three states outside Delaware: North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Mr. Trump, who badly trails him in fund-raising and in many polls, often relies on several rallies a day, across multiple states, to commune with his base.

The Biden team’s cautious approach reflects how the coronavirus crisis has defined nearly every element of their campaign. At a personnel level, they are keenly focused on maintaining the health of the 77-year-old candidate — who like Mr. Trump is in an age group that is especially vulnerable to the virus — as well as protecting staff and supporters and guarding against outbreaks at their events. Politically, the campaign believes that by modeling the recommendations of public health experts, Mr. Biden can exhibit leadership and draw a sharp contrast with the president on an issue that many Americans believe Mr. Trump has mishandled.

On Monday, Mr. Biden rejected any suggestion that he has not been campaigning aggressively, and lashed the Trump campaign for having crowded rallies as the coronavirus death toll has now surpassed 226,000 Americans, with deadly new spikes underway.

But he appeared to acknowledge the perception of a lighter travel schedule as he listed the states he intended to visit in coming days and spoke bullishly of his chances in many of them.

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“There’s not been a day that hasn’t been a 12-hour day yet,” Mr. Biden told a small group of reporters, sounding somewhat defensive. “We’re going to be traveling, continue to travel, but the big difference between us, and the reason why it looks like we’re not traveling, we’re not putting on superspreaders.”

“It’s important to be responsible,” he added.

For the Biden campaign, balancing that instinct with the imperative to engage in battleground states has presented complications on all sides of the equation throughout the coronavirus outbreak.

In recent days, even as cases have risen in Wisconsin, a number of Democrats there pressed the Biden campaign to plan another visit, said Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. They remain scarred by Hillary Clinton’s decision in 2016 to skip campaigning there in the general election, and recall that she once had a polling edge, too, before going on to defeat, even though there are many differences between this election and the one that stunned the nation four years ago.

“We are purple, purple, purple,” Mr. Barrett said. “I know what the polls say. But I also know what the polls said four years ago.”

He expressed relief that the former vice president will appear there Friday. “Elected officials from Wisconsin certainly made the case as to why it’s important he return,” he said. “We’re very happy he’s returning in the final weekend before the election.”

Strategists say that in a typical year, an aggressive schedule of traveling to battlegrounds — and the attendant local media coverage — shows voters that a candidate cares about their state and is doing everything possible to earn their support. At the same time, Mr. Biden’s operations have mirrored his own caution, with limited or no door-knocking and curtailed on-the-ground operations for parts of the general election. That approach has worried some Democratic officials this year and stands in contrast to what the president’s campaign has said is a robust in-person Republican presence.

Yet in-person campaigning plainly also poses risks. Mr. Trump has mocked mask-wearing and scorned social distancing, even though he was hospitalized with the virus this month.

“We already saw the president, by being careless, got sick,” Mr. Axelrod said. “It would be a hell of a thing if, having been as careful as they’ve been, as responsible as they’ve been, if in the last week they allow Biden to get sick. I think that would be something that would be second-guessed till the end of time.”

Mr. Biden’s advisers have long worried about questions of health and safety. For months, as the outbreak spread, they kept him off the trail almost entirely and relied instead on virtual campaigning and on local television interviews, which is a powerful tool for reaching swing voters in key states. And for all of the anxiety among Democrats on the ground and in Washington about that strategy, the low-key approach did not appear to hurt him in polls over the summer.

Still, as fall arrived, and pressure mounted from Democratic officials across the country to be more visible, Mr. Biden returned to the trail in a more consistent way — though his approach would still be highly unusual in any other year. He has rarely ventured west of Michigan, he almost never remains overnight on the trail and he often makes just one or two stops when he does travel. He has embraced drive-in car rallies, but many of his other events are still small and socially distanced.

“Because things have accelerated in terms of the disease, he’s just being extra-cautious,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “We would love to see him, have him go to as many parts of the country as he can. But this is too, too near the end for him to jeopardize where he’s at by getting sick, and his staff as well.”

But for all of their precautions, the issue has hit close to home for the Biden-Harris campaign.

Two people who traveled with Senator Kamala Harris earlier this month tested positive for the coronavirus, including her communications director, and so did someone who had been aboard Mr. Biden’s plane. While it paled in comparison with the wave of infections that coursed through the White House, it was a jarring development internally, though Ms. Harris has resumed campaign travel and had four events planned in Arizona on Wednesday.

In the meantime, plenty of Biden allies are happy to keep the spotlight on Mr. Trump, his record and his controversies as polls continue to show widespread disapproval of his handling of the virus.

But Mr. Biden’s schedule has also given Mr. Trump a talking point of his own. The president — who has struggled to define Mr. Biden in negative terms — has launched a number of attacks on Mr. Biden’s energy levels in recent days.

“You think Sleepy Joe would be doing these things?” Mr. Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire. “He’ll go back to bed.”

Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, dismissed that message as an effort to “exacerbate their failed pandemic response by dismissing the coronavirus threat altogether while holding as many superspreader events as possible.”

“Joe Biden is living his values and keeping communities safe as he aggressively delivers his case,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, at about the same time that Mr. Biden went to Pennsylvania for his only event of the day, a message went out from his Twitter account.

“Don’t wake up on November 4th,” it said, “wishing you had done more.”