For Joseph R. Biden Jr., campaigning these days means virtual fund-raisers. Field offices shuttered. And rallying support by live stream, a tactic vulnerable to severe technological difficulties, as he discovered on Friday evening.
As the sound cut in and out and the audio often came out garbled, Mr. Biden sought to host what his campaign had called a “virtual town hall with Illinois,” in which he spoke to supporters and voters via video in place of an originally scheduled Chicago get-out-the-vote event — or at least, that was the goal.
“I’m sorry this has been such a disjointed effort here because of the connections,” Mr. Biden said as he wrapped up his final answer, to a question about whether he supports the Endangered Species Act. (He does, he said. “Oh, I love you,” the questioner replied.) “There’s a lot more to say, but I’ve probably said too much to you,” Mr. Biden added.
As the nation confronts the coronavirus crisis, the presidential candidates are facing a new challenge to their pursuit of the Democratic nomination: how to connect with voters during the height of the presidential primary campaign — from a safe distance. Both Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, his chief rival in the primaries, have had to pull back from large-scale events this week and allow their staff members to work from home.
In an internal memo, Biden senior leadership on Thursday announced a series of other measures, including closing all campaign offices and campaign headquarters to the public, turning fund-raisers into virtual fund-raisers — “indefinitely” — and relying on “smaller events like roundtables, house parties and press statements, as well as virtual events, like tomorrow’s virtual town hall.”
The limits of such an approach were on vivid display by Friday night.
“Am I on camera?” Mr. Biden, 77, could be overheard asking at one point. At another, he spoke into what appeared to be a phone that he held in his hand, and was captured pacing around. At times he looked visibly annoyed, and at other moments he was obscured by an image that read, “Illinois for Biden.”
The first questioner remarked only that “Mr. Biden’s speech was garbled the entire time.” The second questioner “seems to have dropped,” an organizer of the event said.
“Thank you for your patience as we continue developing our virtual town halls and ensure voters have the opportunity to connect with Vice President Biden as he lays out his vision for America,” read a statement from the campaign sent to reporters later Friday evening.
Yet behind the technological challenges was evidence of the anxiety Americans are feeling about the virus — and the ways that the outbreak has overtaken the 2020 contest.
According to prepared remarks circulated by the campaign, Mr. Biden began the town hall event by discussing the virus, detailing his vision for fighting it and praising the deal reached between the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the White House on a coronavirus relief package. He was also joined at the virtual town hall by Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general who is part of Mr. Biden’s public health advisory committee.
“We will overcome this moment,” the prepared remarks for Mr. Biden said. “That will require all of us to be prudent and proactive. It is the responsibility of each of us to protect our families, our co-workers and our neighbors — especially those that are most vulnerable to serious health outcomes. And campaign events are no exception. That’s why we’re connecting with you virtually today.”
Mr. Biden fielded questions about health care, too, including about how his plan would deal with the “crisis that we’re all facing right now.” He spoke of his proposal to expand Obamacare with a public option, and took a chance to draw a contrast with Mr. Sanders and his support for “Medicare for all,” a sweeping single-payer system that Mr. Biden has suggested would be unfeasible to pass and put in place.
“We need to assure people we can do this quickly,” he said.
In another reminder of the gravity of the moment, Mr. Biden’s health advisory committee announced on Friday night that he had not been tested for the virus because he had not shown any symptoms nor were they aware of “any relevant contact with an individual who has tested positive.”
The Biden campaign was not alone in seeking to navigate the realities of a radically altered presidential campaign trail landscape on Friday.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Sanders had lamented that he had not been able to hold his signature campaign rallies because of prohibitions on large gatherings. He said the campaign would rely “more on our internet capabilities.”
Mr. Sanders said that he too, had not been tested for the coronavirus because he had not presented any symptoms and had not, to his knowledge, come in contact with anyone who had tested positive for the virus.
But his Friday afternoon remarks from a hotel in his hometown, Burlington, Vt., revealed the limitations of his ability to address supporters in the current environment. The cable networks did not carry his remarks, instead opting to broadcast a statement from Ms. Pelosi. Mr. Sanders’s statement and brief question-and-answer session with reporters stationed in Vermont were streamed instead on his campaign’s website.
“We are in the process of thinking this through,” Mr. Sanders said. “This coronavirus has obviously impacted our ability to communicate with people in the traditional way and that’s hurting us.”
Reid J. Epstein and Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.
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