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How Presidential Candidates Reach Voters Online


President Trump's favorite way to reach voters is with big rallies. For the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, it's meeting people face-to-face. Both of those things are impossible right now, so our reporters have been spending a lot of time on the virtual campaign trail to bring us an update on how the race is playing out remotely. Here are NPR's Asma Khalid and, starting us off, NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: If you're a Trump supporter longing for the excitement and MAGA kinship of a rally, the Trump campaign has tried to create the next best thing: a whole world online where Trump is flawless, Republicans are saviors and Democrats and Joe Biden are wrong and dangerous.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is your source for real news, not fake news, straight from the campaign and the president himself.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: The Biden campaign isn't creating its own universe. They're trying to reach as many people as they can in as many places as they can in this weird moment when Biden and his wife Jill can't travel on planes or hop on campaign buses.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So we're trying something new - virtual visits from our home here in Wilmington, Del.

KHALID: That means trying to find people who aren't super dialed-in politics, but might be troubled by President Trump's response to the coronavirus.

KEITH: The team Trump webcasts begin every night at 8:00, simulcast on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and in the campaign's new app, starting with a slick intro that's part campaign ad, part movie trailer, part cable news show open.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome to Team Trump Online.

KEITH: The shows are hosted by campaign aides and members of the Trump family, including daughter-in-law Lara Trump. There are big-name guests, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who are teed up to amplify the Trump message.


LARA TRUMP: Why do Democrats insist on keeping people out of work, holding them hostage over ridiculous demands?

MITCH MCCONNELL: You know, I don't know what it is, but I think you're right...

KEITH: It looks like cable news, but in reality, it's more like an elaborate infomercial. Graphics in the lower third of the screen rotate through discount codes to buy Trump merch, prompts to download the Trump 2020 app, or to text the campaign.


L TRUMP: We're going to take one last quick break. Stick around for more Team Trump Online.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: During the coronavirus pandemic, Joe Biden criticized President Trump's China travel ban.

JOE BIDEN: Hysterical xenophobia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He was dead wrong.

KEITH: The commercials are a mix of pro-Trump and anti-Biden campaign ads, information about how to volunteer, and another reminder to download the app from Donald Trump Jr.


DONALD TRUMP JR: The Democrats and the fake news media hate my father more than they love our country, and they're doing whatever it takes to tear us down at the expense of the American people. That's why we need every American patriot to step up and join our fight. Just download our app.

KHALID: The Biden campaign doesn't have anything akin to its own version of a primetime cable lineup. Democrats readily admit that the Trump digital operation dwarfs Biden's. His campaign is putting out a mix of virtual programming: some campaign trainings with former presidential candidates, like Beto O'Rourke or Pete Buttigieg, some Zoom fundraisers and some virtual roundtables, like this one at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you for joining this Biden for president event. We'd like to thank our guests, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan...

KHALID: Three governors joined Biden to talk about their state's response to COVID-19 and what the federal government ought to do to help. Biden led the discussion from his patio at home.


JOE BIDEN: That's the geese you hear in the background.

JILL BIDEN: (Laughter).

JOE BIDEN: There's a little pond out here. Most Canadian geese are trying to get away from the virus. Anyway...

KHALID: The central message here, and on pretty much every platform, is that this election is a referendum on how President Trump has handled the virus. Here's Biden on "Good Morning America."


JOE BIDEN: He's been incompetent, the way in which he's responded to it. We have 80,000 deaths. We have more deaths, we have more of the virus than any nation in the world. What's the story here?

KEITH: Meanwhile, Trump has all the advantages of incumbency. With the White House COVID testing everyone who comes near him, Trump is flying Air Force One to swing states for official events that have all the contours of his rallies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.


KEITH: Trump was in Pennsylvania visiting a manufacturer of protective equipment used by health care workers. But the walkup music was straight from his rally playlist.




DONALD TRUMP: Thank you. All that social distancing. Look at you people all spread out 6 feet. That's pretty impressive.

KEITH: And his speech even included the rally tradition of jeering at the press in the back of the room.


DONALD TRUMP: And the press doesn't ever talk about it. They don't want to talk about it. They are right there. They don't want to talk about it. They are a disaster.

KHALID: Biden hasn't traveled anywhere for the last couple of months. Instead, he often beams into TV shows from his basement, flanked by books and family photos. His strategy is about maximizing reach, which often means lots of interviews in battleground states with local TV, which remains a trusted news source across the political spectrum.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Welcome back. In an op-ed published Monday in The Washington Post, former Vice President Joe Biden...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Amanda (ph) sat down with former Vice President Joe Biden about his team's efforts.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: He's not on the campaign trail right now because of the pandemic, but he did grant us an interview. Here in Arizona...

KHALID: Last week, Biden did interviews with stations in Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona. He insists that staying indoors while Trump is on the road hasn't changed the race, and that's what he told KLAS TV in Las Vegas.


JOE BIDEN: Matter of fact, in a bizarre way, the president - the more he's out there, the more he hurts himself, I think.

KHALID: Biden's criticism of the president isn't just about how he's managed the public health crisis, but about how he's handling the economic fallout. It's a message he delivered on the CBS affiliate in Phoenix.


JOE BIDEN: We're in serious trouble. We have 1 in 5 people in the United States America is unemployed. We're trying very hard to figure out how to get them the help they need.

KEITH: The Trump campaign is now training all its firepower on damaging Biden. According to the Facebook ad library, last week the Trump campaign spent more than twice as much on Facebook ads as the Biden campaign. And it included a three-day test of a dizzying array of hits on Biden. Some portrayed him as old and mentally unfit, others as a puppet of China.

KHALID: Teddy Goff is a Democratic strategist who ran Barack Obama's 2012 digital operation. He concedes that Donald Trump is good at capturing attention, but he's skeptical that that's actually good politics.

TEDDY GOFF: Donald Trump can send a bizarre tweet that kind of ping-pongs around the right-wing Twittersphere and gets, you know, 50,000 retweets. And it probably doesn't persuade a single voter. And it might actually turn off a couple of voters.

KEITH: The Trump campaign isn't really doing persuasion. It's firing up the base, and finding people who support Trump who didn't vote last time and getting them to vote this time. Stefan Smith, who was the online engagement director for the Buttigieg campaign, has spent a lot of time looking at the Trump app and the team Trump video offerings.

STEFAN SMITH: This is about protecting your voters from anything that might - maybe not persuade them to vote for someone else, but might keep them from turning out. Keep them angry and you keep them engaged.

KEITH: President Trump faces incredibly strong headwinds in his reelection bid: a pandemic and a deep recession. His campaign is counting on being able to overcome it all, at least in part, with a digital behemoth it's been building and perfecting since 2015.

KHALID: Joe Biden doesn't have the social media dominance or the instincts to entertain and outrage that Donald Trump does. He's the challenger trying to overcome that with a brand built on empathy and experience. And his campaign is counting on the idea that in a crisis, that's what people want.

I'm Asma Khalid.

KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.

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