How the coronavirus pandemic changed the 2020 campaign
Yet the campaign, like American life, has forged ahead in unprecedented ways amid the threat of the coronavirus, which has dangerously surged again in recent weeks. In April, thousands of people across Wisconsin risked their health to cast primary ballots in the early weeks of the pandemic — a preview of the long lines to come even in the final days before the general election.
In early summer, President Trump, 74, resumed his massive campaign rallies against the advice of health experts and sent Republican organizers back into the field, downplaying the risks of covid-19 even after he became infected. Democrats, meanwhile, moved most of their campaigning into the virtual world — hosting organizing events and rallies on Zoom.
When Biden eventually returned to in-person campaigning, his schedule was limited, the guest list sparse. The 77-year-old candidate, who once stood close enough to touch foreheads with voters, now stood far away from them — proof, his advisers said, that he cared enough about Americans to do anything to keep them safe.
March 3: In late February, Biden celebrates a comeback victory in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, just as the U.S. reports what was believed to be the country’s first death from the coronavirus. By Super Tuesday, when voters across 14 states hit the polls, leaders scramble to put covid-related protections in place. California adds curbside drop-off to limit exposure. In Virginia, officials scramble to make sure they have enough hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
March 8: With coronavirus cases rising, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign places hand sanitizer dispensers throughout an event in Grand Rapids, Mich., where thousands of unmasked supporters turn out to see him win the endorsement of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
March 9: Democrats and Republicans begin to cancel their in-person campaign events amid reports of rising cases. Even when gatherings go forward, precautions are put in place. At one event, a Biden staffer dispenses hand sanitizer to hundreds of people attending a unity rally in Detroit, where the former vice president appeared with former rivals Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
March 10: Biden and Sanders cancel dueling evening rallies they had planned in Cleveland to await primary results from Michigan and several other states because of the coronavirus.
March 12: Biden and Sanders shutter campaign offices around the country and cancel plans to travel to Arizona for a planned primary debate. The two men later spar in a CNN studio in Washington from podiums spaced six feet apart.
March 14: Biden holds his first virtual event — a town hall with Illinois voters — but it is marred by technical difficulties. The campaign later posts an edited version on YouTube. A few days later, Sanders hosts a virtual “rally,” complete with surrogates and video performances from musical artists, including Neil Young, who was joined by his wife, Daryl Hannah, and his dog, who continually appeared at the bottom of the screen.
April 7: Wisconsin becomes the first state to hold an election amid the pandemic, forcing thousands of people to stand in hours-long lines to cast ballots in person after conservatives on the state Supreme Court blocked a Democratic effort to delay the primary for health reasons.
April 14: Trump hosts his longest coronavirus briefing to date. Trump spent the briefing, which clocked in at about 150 minutes, attacking Democrats and the media over their rhetoric on the virus.
April: Biden begins to host virtual events live-streamed from his basement in Wilmington, Del.
Primaries rolled on across the country, but they were often marred by technical challenges brought on by the coronavirus. In New York, a huge surge in mail-in voters significantly slowed counting, and thousands of ballots were tossed. In Pennsylvania, slow counts left many races undecided for days.
After an initial lull, the Trump campaign began to once again plan in-person events, mocking Biden for “hiding in his basement.”
The president’s inaugural post-pandemic event was a June 20 rally in Tulsa The campaign billed the event as a celebration of the nation reopening for business after weeks of coronavirus-related shutdowns. In a form that would be put into place for every event going forward, guests were asked to sign a waiver to “voluntarily assume all risks” related to attending the event.
In the lead-up to the event, Trump officials bragged about record-breaking applications for tickets. But turnout was lower than expected, marred by thousands of empty seats. In the wake of the event, viewed as an embarrassment inside Trumpworld, the campaign moved away from big rally-style events.
Biden spent much of his summer appearing at events and television interviews filmed at his home. He tried to draw a contrast with Trump by appearing in a mask at nearly every event, even when being interviewed on television.
He did make occasional public appearances. After the killing of George Floyd, Biden visited the site of protests in Wilmington, Del., where he knelt to speak to demonstrators. Soon after, Biden traveled to Philadelphia to deliver his first formal speech since the pandemic, calling out Trump for his divisive rhetoric and urging Americans not to “let our rage consume us.” He spoke to a mostly empty room save a handful of reporters. Biden later traveled to Houston to meet with Floyd’s family ahead of his funeral.
In August, Biden picked Harris as his running mate. Their first appearance was a socially distanced event inside a mostly empty high school gym. Nodding to a crowd of people who gathered outside to catch a glimpse of the Democratic ticket, Biden mourned for a campaign that could have been. “I wish we could talk to everyone outside,” Biden said. “But we’re social distancing and playing by the rules.”
Behind the scenes, the campaign launched an aggressive fundraising operation, meeting with groups of donors in Zoom events featuring high-profile surrogates. By September, Biden’s campaign was outraising Trump.
With much of the country still facing coronavirus-related restrictions, forcing the cancellation of summertime events and limiting some campaign events, Trump voters began to organize their own efforts to show support for the president with boat, tractor and pickup truck parades that often drew hundreds of participants. Biden fans mostly stuck with virtual campaigning, showing support for their candidate online.
Democrats cancel their in-person convention planned for Milwaukee, unveiling a slickly produced made-for-TV virtual event.
Over the course of the four-day events, the Democrats highlight their party’s diversity, featuring voters from across the country. During the party’s roll-call, a fisherman in Alaska, a nurse in New York and a tribal activist in South Dakota declare their delegation’s support for Biden. Former president Barack Obama urges Americans to make a plan to vote, warning, “Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy.” Harris introduces herself to voters with a deeply personal speech about her family.
On the last night of the convention, Biden delivered his acceptance speech inside a mostly empty convention center and, afterward, he and Harris and their spouses appeared masked and distanced before a drive-in rally of supporters in their cars. Democratic voters mostly followed along on TV and online, though some local parties in Iowa and Oklahoma hosted events to allow voters to watch Biden’s speech at drive-in movie theaters.
Trump moved the Republican convention from Charlotte, to Jacksonville, Fla., before much of the event was ultimately scrapped because of coronavirus concerns.
The event ultimately had a mix of taped and in-person events featuring several members of the Trump family who spoke from inside an empty Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C. Trump appeared every night for “surprise” segments that featured, among other things, an immigration and naturalization ceremony hosted by the president. The attendees later said they were not told that they would be part of the political convention.
In a Rose Garden address, first lady Melania Trump offered her “deepest sympathy” to Americans suffering from the coronavirus. Trump accepted his nomination for reelection at a controversial event on the South Lawn of the White House, promising, “We will make America safer. We will make America stronger. We will make America prouder. And we will make America greater than ever before.”
Experts said the Trump campaign had violated the Hatch Act by using the trappings of the White House for what amounted to a multiday campaign event.
September: The Trump campaign continues to knock on doors, boasting that its volunteers visit a million homes a week. In yet another symbol of the bifurcated approaches to campaigning, the Biden campaign eschews the practice completely until early October, focusing instead on virtual campaign efforts by phone and text, along with virtual events featuring top surrogates like Harris, who pops up in TikTok videos and taped interviews across the Internet with celebrities like actress Mindy Kaling. In battleground states like Wisconsin and Iowa, the Biden campaign sets up “supply centers” for supporters to pick up campaign signs and literature.
Sept. 8: Trump leans into live events, hosting boisterous rallies in airplane hangars across the country. Few attendees wear masks, and there is no social distancing or other safety protocols. On one day in September, Trump hosted events in Florida and North Carolina.
Sept. 18: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, sparking a huge outpouring of donations from Democrats to Senate candidates across the country, leading to a record-breaking haul for candidates and to ActBlue, a Democratic organizing app. “In this moment it is vital to give to Senate candidates,” reads an ActBlue fundraising page called “Protect RBG’s Legacy.”
Sept. 29: Biden and Trump meet for their first debate in Cleveland, where members of the Trump family flout rules requiring masks to be worn inside the venue. The next day, Trump travels to Minnesota for events, including a large rally in Duluth that violates the state’s public health rules requiring limited crowd sizes and social distancing rules because of the pandemic. Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s closest advisers, begins to show symptoms of covid-19 on the trip and later tests positive for the coronavirus.
Oct. 1: The Trump campaign announces that the president has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, throwing the campaign into chaos. A day later, the president is hospitalized as questions swirl about when he first knew he was sick and whether proper safety precautions were followed.
Oct. 3: Jill Biden stumps in Minnesota, delivering a scathing attack of Trump’s coronavirus record to an audience standing in hula hoops, spaced six-feet apart. One of the campaign’s most active surrogates, Jill Biden made more than 25 live appearances in October, and her husband visited eight battleground states over the month.
Oct. 6: Biden expands his in-person campaigning, traveling to battleground states including Florida. Standing on the tarmac near his campaign plane in Delaware, Biden was speaking to reporters when his wife, Jill, whispered to him about social distancing and gently moved him back a few steps. “I’m sorry,” he said and continued talking.
Oct. 10: Trump makes his first public appearance since being discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, addressing a crowd of several hundred people on the South Lawn of the White House. Two days later, he traveled to Sanford, Fla., for his first rally since his coronavirus diagnosis.
Oct. 11: Biden delivers a speech in Gettysburg, using the Civil War battlefield as a backdrop for a speech on American division and discord. “A century and a half after Gettysburg, we should consider again what can happen when equal justice is denied and when anger and violence and division are left unchecked,” Biden said in rural Pennsylvania.
Oct. 21: Obama makes his first appearance on the campaign trail at a drive-in rally, now a hallmark of the Biden campaign. Sanders; Warren; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; and others also hosted in-person, socially distanced events in the final days before Election Day, a sign of the campaign’s shifting strategy in the final stretch.
Oct. 22: At the final debate, Trump and Biden face off from a distance, sparring over the coronavirus, race and the future of the country.
Oct. 27: In his final push, Trump launches an aggressive schedule of large, outdoor rallies across the battleground states — including in Wisconsin, now a covid-19 hotspot. After taking a lap in the presidential limo around a racetrack in La Crosse, Wis., the site of one rally, Trump downplays the threat of the virus, even as the state reports a record 5,262 new cases. “We’re turning the corner. We’re rounding, like this racetrack,” Trump tells several thousand mostly unmasked supporters.
In Omaha, thousands of Trump supporters are left stranded in freezing temperatures for hours after there were not enough buses to transport people back to their cars after a nighttime airport rally there. Seven people were hospitalized, according to Omaha police.
In the first few weeks of early voting, at least 69 million Americans cast a ballot. It’s a historic figure, equal to roughly half of the total turnout in 2016. The overwhelming demand to vote — reflected in long lines nationwide — highlights the widespread sense of urgency Americans feel. “This is about preserving our democracy,” said one voter in Texas. “This feels like the last thing we have left to preserve civil society.”