Biden’s small, safe and smart rallies

Published 10:32 pm Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

When you’re a presidential candidate in the pandemic era, your options for communications aren’t so good.  You could hold traditional campaign rallies, or stay completely virtual.  But the Biden Team figured out a hybrid strategy, one that just might pay off in the swing states.  It’s one that the local Democratic Party has adopted, to keep pace with Senate and local Republicans who have traditionally dominated this practice.  It’s a lesson that leaders used in history.

In the documentary series “Command Decisions,” you are given three battlefield options a leader could take.  Two choices are discarded, while one is presented as the one the leader took, the best bet.  In the episode on the Battle of Rivoli in Italy, Napoleon could have attempted to address his entire army at once, which is logistically infeasible.  He could have limited his conversation to immediate generals and high-ranking officers.  But the wily French leader adopted at different tactic: speaking to small groups of soldiers here and there. 

As the Command Decisions team reported, news of these small events spread throughout the army, to maximum effect.  Soldiers knew a personal audience was infeasible, but were encouraged by the fact that the individual infantryman was appreciated.  You can see evidence of this in the behavior of American Generals as well, such as Ike talking to members of the 101st Airborne before D-Day.

Since coming to Georgia, I had seen the Democratic Party in disarray.  It was thought that the state just wasn’t a swing state and it didn’t matter, but perhaps it wasn’t blue because it wasn’t pursued as effectively.  And instead of treating the press with hostility, Republicans running for congressional and statewide office were eager to conduct these small, meaningful events with ardent supporters, as well as the media, hungry for news, often bringing in a national political celebrity.  Such practices continued with Senator Kelly Loeffler’s campaign, bringing in Nikki Haley, and Rep. Doug Collins doing the same with Mike Huckabee.  Even Senator David Perdue followed at the local downtown square, with Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue as the featured guest.

When Biden’s event in Warm Springs was limited to national pooled press, I thought it was more of the same.  A spokesperson explained to me the importance of the bubble due to the pandemic, and I understood.  But then Rev. Warnock came to town, campaigning alongside State Rep. Bob Trammell and local candidates for City and County Commission.  They let several of my students in to ask questions, a political experience of a lifetime for them. 

Then, Biden’s press team invited me to an Atlanta event for Warnock and Ossoff, including former U.S. President Barack Obama.  Okay, so the packed crowd at the Turner Field Parking Lot Drive-In wasn’t always following the rules to the letter, with the loudspeakers blaring out commands to please utilize social distancing, but at least everyone was wearing a mask.  Democratic candidates stayed afterwards to greet members of the audience, just like local Republicans did.

As for the Donald Trump campaign, they’ve tried the strategy that Napoleon rejected, attempting to speak to the entire army with huge rallies in Macon and Rome.  While these events may look good on television for supporters, these largely maskless affairs are dangerous, and there is some concern that they may be superspreader events.  And while the Trump team was great with outreach about covering such events like the one at the Fox Theater in 2016 that I attended, it’s not been the same for such local events involving the president.   And a local rally with few masks led some prominent GOP politicians to test positive, or to quarantine because of exposure to someone with COVID-19, demonstrating that the Democratic Party strategy of safe events, copying several of those highlighting local Republicans is the prudent one in 2020.