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Biden benefits from staying out of spotlight amid coronavirus outbreak, experts say

FILE - In this March 15, 2020, file photo, former Vice President Joe Biden, participates in a Democratic presidential primary debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., not seen, at CNN Studios in Washington. This may be the best of times politically for Biden, who won three massive endorsements over the last week, none bigger than former rival Bernie Sanders. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
FILE - In this March 15, 2020, file photo, former Vice President Joe Biden, participates in a Democratic presidential primary debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., not seen, at CNN Studios in Washington. This may be the best of times politically for Biden, who won three massive endorsements over the last week, none bigger than former rival Bernie Sanders. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
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Former Vice President Joe Biden is building a lead over President Donald Trump in key swing states, new polls suggest, as voters question Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and pay relatively little attention to anything Biden is doing at all.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found more than 40% of registered voters are unaware or unsure of what Biden has said about the coronavirus, and only about half of those who have heard Biden’s comments trust what he is saying. However, other polling suggests not being heard right now might be the best thing for the former vice president.

Despite the lack of awareness of Biden’s response to the public health crisis, the NBC/WSJ poll showed him ahead of Trump nationally by 8 points. While President Trump’s approval rating briefly ticked upward in some polls, Biden has steadily led him head-to-head by an average of about 6 points throughout the last month.

Several swing state surveys released this week signal trouble for President Trump in battlegrounds that were essential to his 2016 victory, including his home state of Florida. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found Biden leading by 4 points there, with slightly more than half of Florida voters disapproving of Trump’s response to the outbreak.

Fox News polls conducted recently showed Biden up by 8 points in Michigan and Pennsylvania, while new Reuters surveys put Biden ahead in those two states as well as Wisconsin. According to CNN, Biden’s latest numbers in all four states have improved upon his recent polling averages.

However, a New York Times analysis Friday found Biden’s lead in those four states is only half the size of the advantage 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had over Trump six months before losing all of them in November. While voters are lukewarm on Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Biden does not appear to be benefiting much from the boost in popularity Democratic governors have seen in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

A national poll of Latino registered voters conducted by Latino Decisions earlier this month also contains some warning signs for Biden. Only about half of respondents said they planned to vote for Biden, far below the 66% who backed Clinton in 2016, though about one-third remained undecided. The survey suggested selecting a Latina running mate like Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto could help shore up support with that demographic.

“There have been rumblings asking where Biden has been during all of this, and polling regarding his involvement with the pandemic corroborate this sentiment,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

According to Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University, head-to-head polling this far out from the election provides little insight into the state of the race, but the results can be used to juice fundraising and motivate the base. He noted Trump’s numbers in most of these polls fall in the low-40s range, as they did throughout 2016, and that turned out to be enough to win last time.

“Trump’s been at that sort of 42% to 44% spot forever,” Berkovitz said. “It probably will be like that on Nov. 2, but as an indicator, even then, who knows?”

With so much in flux amid the outbreak and the economy on the brink of a recession, it is harder than ever to predict the mindset of the electorate six months from now. Still, Democrats see the recent polls as a positive sign for Biden.

“I want Biden to win, but Americans usually vote on how their country and they themselves are doing in the moment,” said Democratic strategist Hamza Khan, founder of the Pluralism Project. “We have a long way to go before opinion polls tell us something meaningful, but that being said: I’d rather be Biden than Trump right now.”

Part of the difficulty Biden has faced is that the pandemic has thrust other Democrats who are currently in office to the forefront. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are negotiating trillion-dollar stimulus packages on Capitol Hill and Democratic governors are guiding their states through the crisis, but Biden has no authority.

“Biden doesn’t have a platform on which to communicate,” said Republican strategist David Payne. “He can’t make policy like Schumer and Pelosi. He can’t act like a governor. He’s stuck at home where his best move has been to offer Skype interviews. But even in these, he is proving difficult to understand.”

Throughout the last month, Biden has been holding sporadic town halls and talking to the media from the basement of his home in Delaware, touting high-profile endorsements and accusing President Trump of bungling the federal response to the virus. In an appearance on “The Late Late Show” on CBS Tuesday, Biden praised low-wage workers, claimed Trump was moving too slowly, and marveled at “the soul of this country.”

“What I get frustrated about is when I look at him up there going through his antics about him, it's always about him, is what all the people are getting hurt—and some of them are dying,” Biden said.

Former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel argued in a Politico op-ed Thursday that sense of empathy will be a boon for Biden—and a stark contrast with Trump—as the country crawls out from the wreckage of the pandemic.

“Biden’s experience and competence will stand in stark relief to Trump’s penchant for playing the role of national carnival barker. But if that’s the obvious contrast, here’s what will make the biggest difference this November: ‘Uncle Joe’ has carried the burden of grief like few others in public life,” Emanuel wrote.

Behind the scenes, Biden has also been working to get his vice-presidential selection team in place and racing to catch up with the Trump campaign’s massive advantage in fundraising and organizing. Endorsements from former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama should help with that, but it has proven difficult to build momentum from Biden’s basement.

President Trump’s reelection campaign maintains it is unconcerned by the latest polling and Biden’s efforts to stay relevant. Campaign manager Brad Parscale told Fox News Thursday the enthusiasm gap between Trump and “gaffe machine” Biden is huge, and he predicted Trump would be “in a very good place” by Election Day.

"Americans are going to see that he's not only protecting their safety with very low deaths and protecting the American people, that he's going to bring the economy back in a roaring way and I think it's going to be a successful election for him in November," Parscale said.

The Trump campaign has pounced on several factual errors and exaggerations in Biden’s virtual town halls and fundraisers, as well as comments that appear to frame the outbreak as an “opportunity” to advance progressive policies. It has also released ads questioning his stance toward China and his mental state.

With President Trump making false statements and delivering questionable medical advice from the White House in multi-hour briefings on national television every night, though, those barbs have gotten little mainstream traction. Trump’s own public praise of President Xi Jinping and his financial ties to China have also undermined efforts to malign Biden as soft on Beijing.

An Associated Press/NORC poll released this week found only 28% of Americans say they are regularly getting information about the coronavirus from President Trump and 23% have high levels of trust in what he is saying. Six-in-ten say Trump is not listening to experts enough, and less than one-quarter of Americans believe the president cares about people like them.

“Combined with the economic crisis that the pandemic is now fueling, none of these are positive signs for a Trump reelection,” Koning said. “But we still have several months to go, reelection is undoubtedly at the forefront of the Trump campaign’s mind, and Trump shouldn’t be discounted for November just yet.”

Trump mocked Biden during his coronavirus task force briefing Thursday, referring to him as “a sleepy guy in the basement of a house, that the press is giving a free pass to.” Experts say there is not much more Biden can do under the circumstances, though, and he would be better served using this time to develop a solid campaign strategy.

“Trump lives in front of the TV camera, lives on Twitter, and for Biden to try to elbow his way into that in the current media environment just doesn’t make sense,” Berkovitz said. “For better or for worse, let Trump be Trump, and let Biden analyze what his play is going to be.”

President Trump’s unscripted appearances have always been polarizing, Payne acknowledged, and his widely-viewed nightly question-and-answer sessions appear to be taking a toll on public opinion.

“His approval rating would be soaring right now if he simply stuck to the facts and stayed on-message about safely progressing toward economic reopening,” Payne said. “He loses ground when he ad-libs.”

Staying out of the spotlight works for Biden for now, but Khan said he would eventually need to demonstrate to skeptical voters that he has the integrity and soundness of character and mind to lead the nation in a crisis.

“Biden is doing what he must so far to get out the message,” Khan said. “His challenge is convincing Americans that anyone from his generation can be trusted to be competent and honest at their job—since Trump has proven the opposite.”

Parscale is not wrong about Biden’s reputation as a “gaffe machine,” though, and neither candidate seems to excel when they are at the center of the nation’s attention. Speaking out more would only help if Biden has something clear and compelling to say.

“While criticism alone of Trump’s handling of the crisis certainly works in Biden’s favor, voters also yearn to hear directly from Biden as a counterpoint - but that will only help if Biden’s message is strong, clear, and impactful,” Koning said.

When the Biden campaign has gone on the offensive in recent weeks, it has gotten mixed results. The rollout of endorsements garnered big headlines and Democrats have been impressed by some ads taking aim at Trump’s handling of the crisis, but a recent video slamming China sparked a backlash from progressives who accused Biden of promoting xenophobia.

“Biden has a long track record of messing up campaign opportunities, and that’s the last thing he wants to do now,” Berkovitz said, “so he’s got to be very careful to make sure he not only does the right thing but he doesn’t do the wrong thing when it comes to what’s going to be a pretty lengthy campaign.”

Though it is not yet clear exactly when, there will come a time when Biden has to come out of the basement, hold somewhat more traditional campaign events, and regularly appear on television. When he does, Republicans expect Biden’s difficulties communicating will become more apparent and Trump will be able to effectively exploit his weaknesses—if he can avoid falling prey to his own.

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“Staying out of sight is not a viable campaign plan. Don’t forget, Trump has more money in the bank than Biden and hasn’t started the advertising onslaught yet. Every time Biden gets in front of a camera, he’s at risk of coming across as confused and meandering,” Payne said, though he added, “This cuts both ways. Every time Trump goes on camera and goes off script, he’s potentially giving ammunition to the Biden campaign.”

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