With Elections Looming Large at a Pivotal Juncture, Biden Contrasts the Tradition of Big Campaign Rallies

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Biden Election Campaign

In light of a dismal approval rating, President Biden keeps a low profile on the campaign trail, making him unwelcome in some congressional districts and states at a decisive moment leading up to the midterm elections.

Biden Election Campaign
US President Joe Biden speaks at a rally with Maryland Democrats at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland on August 25, 2022. [Bryan Dozier/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

President Biden has not held an election campaign rally since before Labor Day.

Nothing beats having a president at a large, boisterous campaign rally. And Democrats in four cities—Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas—will have that opportunity this month, in the last days of voting that will determine who controls Congress, governorships, and statehouses.

But it won’t be President Biden. Instead, former President Barack Obama will be there. Mr. Biden is still yet to hold a campaign rally since before Labor Day, even though the midterm elections will determine the future of his agenda and his political career. His low approval rating shows up in how he runs the campaign. White House officials say that the president has made it a point to talk about his party’s successes in speeches instead of going to political rallies.

With less than 3 weeks to Election Day and polls showing that Democratic enthusiasm is falling, Mr. Biden’s plan is clear: he will continue to hopscotch across the country to talk about infrastructure, negotiated drug prices, student debt relief, & investments in computer chip manufacturing. But his decision not to go to rallies, which are usually a big part of campaign season, reveals how little the president can do to help fellow Democrats, even with the Oval Office’s loudspeaker.

It is an unusually low-key campaign for a president who is about to face one of the biggest setbacks of his political career: Republicans are about to retake control of one or both houses of Congress. This will change the way politics work in Washington and probably end any hope Democrats have of making progress on abortion rights, police reform, gun control, voting rights, or tax fairness.

Biden Election Campaign
A sign with the words “return PA to in-person voting” is seen in a yard ahead of the 2022 mid-term election. Supporters of Donald Trump pushed a stolen election myth during the 2020 election tied in part to mail-in voting fraud. [Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images]

The Final Stretch: Biden’s Plans for the Midterm Election Campaign Season in Stark Contrast

Mr. Biden is not going to hide out in Washington. Instead, he’s been to Colorado, California, and Oregon recently. He will be in Philadelphia on Thursday to show his support for John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania. Still, there won’t be a stadium full of people voting, a sea of colorful campaign signs, or the president hollering “Vote! Vote! Vote!” for TV cameras to catch.

Instead, Mr. Biden and Mr. Fetterman, the lieutenant governor, will only attend a closed-door reception for guests. Journalists will be escorted out halfway through the event to record the president’s short remarks. On Thursday, just hours before the private reception, Mr. Biden will also give an official speech about infrastructure in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Biden’s plans for the last part of the election season are very different from those of his immediate predecessors. In October 2018, former President Donald J. Trump held 26 rallies, including nine in the last four days of the midterm elections. Even though Obama’s approval rating was only 44% in October 2010, he held 16 campaign rallies.

The Obama campaign said that the former president would be the main speaker at least four big rallies before the election. In Nevada, he will join Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, trailing in the polls, & other candidates for an early vote rally on November 1.

Other Democrats have moved around to attract more people and get more money. Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation and ran for president in 2016, led a rally to get people to the polls in Kansas on Wednesday. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is from Vermont and is independent, ran for president in 2020; he will start a tour of eight states that will include at least 19 events.

Biden Election Campaign
Former U.S. President Donald Trump a day after the midterm elections on November 7, 2018 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Republicans kept the Senate majority but lost control of the House to the Democrats. [Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

Biden’s Bespoke Midterm Election Campaign Strategy 

When asked to name the best Democrat campaign surrogate, Mr. Sanders declined, then said that Mr. Obama “can and will play a very important role.”

When pressed specifically about whether Mr. Biden should hold more rallies, he replied, “I don’t want to speculate on that either.”

The people who work for Mr. Biden disagree with the idea that he is too low-key. Instead, they say they have come up with a midterm election plan that fits with his image as a politician who tries to stay above the political fray. Instead, they say that the president and the Democrats have done more in a short time than his predecessors and that it is better to talk about these accomplishments in official settings than in partisan ones.

They say that when Mr. Biden gives official speeches, his accomplishments are captured in the headlines of local newspapers and on TV, which helps Democratic candidates in the area. Mr. Biden’s speeches have also recently made the front page of The Times Leader in Pennsylvania, The Columbus Dispatch, The Denver Post, and other news outlets.

How reporters from the Times cover politics. We count on our journalists to keep an open mind. Employees of the Times can vote but can’t support or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes marching or holding a rally in support of a movement and giving or raising money for any political candidate or election cause.

Mr. Richmond said that the Democrats won’t know how well Mr. Biden’s plan works until after the election. Even though Obama and Trump campaigned hard in 2010 and 2018, they lost politically in the midterm elections.

Mr. Richmond said, “The best way to get people excited about voting is to show them what he’s been able to accomplish on their behalf.”

Mr. Biden used to be the kind of Democrat welcomed in red states. In 2018, he visited more conservative states like Montana and Kentucky. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times said that as vice president, Joe Biden had been to more than “114 campaign events for 66 different candidates, committees, & parties” and had become “a patron saint of the embattled House Democrat.”

The GOP is eager to hold rallies. Mr. Trump has been all over the country, holding rallies almost every week that attract tens of thousands of people. Former Vice President Mike Pence has campaigned for more than 30 candidates for Congress and governorships. He has also been the main speaker at events for state and local Republican parties.

Republican governors with national names, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, have been the main speakers at rallies and fund-raisers for other governors in some of the most competitive races in the country.

Last week, Mr. Biden went to the West Coast for four days, an example of a different approach.

Mr. Biden spoke about the cost of health care at a community college in Orange County, California, a day after attending a reception for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to raise money behind closed doors.

“I’m here today to talk about the progress we’re making to bring down healthcare costs for everybody,” he told a crowd at the community college event in Irvine. He also took the opportunity to thank Ms. Porter. “Everyone respects you. And it’s a big deal because you get a lot done.”

One way that Democratic candidates like Ms. Porter benefit financially. When the president makes an expensive campaign stop, like at a rally, the party or candidate must pay for some of Mr. Biden’s travel costs, such as Air Force One, Secret Service security, and other expenses.

Even if the candidate goes with the president to an official White House event, like the one in Irvine, the campaign does not pay for the trip.

According to his advisers, the cost savings for candidates wasn’t a big reason for Mr. Biden’s approach to the midterms. At best, they called it a “benefit” of his travel schedule.

Biden Election Campaign
Former US President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic Governor Dan Malloy, who is up for re-election, at Central High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, November 2, 2014. [Saul LOEB / AFP PHOTO/Getty Images]

The Final Push

The president’s final push comes at a harrowing time for Democrats.

Recent polls show that Republicans have an advantage heading into the election’s final weeks as concerns about inflation and the economy rise. For example, in a New York Times and Siena College poll, people who were most worried about the economy were more than twice as likely to choose the Republicans.

In Ohio, the Democratic candidate for Senate, Representative Tim Ryan, has said he would not invite President Biden to his home state because he wants to be the “face of the campaign.”

When asked if their candidates would like to campaign with Mr. Biden, representatives for Senate candidates in Georgia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Nevada didn’t say for sure.

Vicki Hiatt, the chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, gushed about Mr. Buttigieg’s arrival this week, labeling him “a very strong, energizing person” and adding, “He’s young and intelligent.” He just is—I think he has a lot of energy.”

When asked if it would help Democrats if Mr. Biden came to the state for political reasons, Ms. Hiatt paused. Last year, he did have an official event in Kansas City, Mo.

“I don’t think he’d hurt,” she said. “I don’t think there’d be any harm done.” And I believe there will be a large turnout.”

She said, “he is doing good work for the American people.”

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