“If we work hard,” Christ said, “this man will become president of the United States. And God is going to be happy for it.” If your last name is Christ, you can say stuff like that.
And so it went, the blackouts, the indecipherable monologues, the speakers staring silently, endlessly, waiting for a prompt. I kept my eye on the viewer counter in the corner of the screen. From what I could tell, viewership peaked at 2,637 and then fell off a cliff as the technical troubles continued. The numbers rose a bit when, nearing the program’s end, the announcer spoke Biden’s name. The screen filled with a sunlit suburban room, and we saw a man in aviators approaching the camera from the glow of a patio. “Did they introduce me?” he asked, looking around. “Huh?”
Biden gave a version of his stump speech from the campaign trail, with unfortunate improvisations: “This country is really all about the American people,” he said. It felt like a mercy when, after he bade us goodbye, his image faded and a card came up advertising the Virtual Rally in Tampa, FL that had just ended.
The whole rally was, in short, a disaster—not a lasting or sizable one, but easily, in its comprehensiveness, the equal of any in my political experience, and I covered the 2016 Jeb Bush campaign. The fundamental problem was conceptual. Biden’s handlers approached the challenge of bringing a rally online too literally. They tried simply to list the elements of a typical rally and tick off the boxes—music, check; Pledge of Allegiance, check; speeches, check; candidate remarks, check; Ray-Bans, check—and then throw them up on the web, in serial fashion. For Zoom-campaign operatives, the trick in the future will be to somehow recreate the essence of a real-life rally, its excitement and spontaneity, without straining after a precise simulation.
No one should underestimate the devastating effects of technological incompetence. We know that a lot of former Obama administration officials are getting involved in Biden’s campaign, which is perfectly understandable, but the Tampa rally suggests he’s brought back the tech crew from the first Obamacare website.
Other online appearances have been more successful, though not very. Biden’s team has posted a number of endorsements, including one from his former rival Bernie Sanders. Watching the two candidates side by virtual side, viewers of a certain age had the happy experience of reliving the Bartles and Jaymes commercials of our youth. Hillary Clinton joined Biden in another Zoom town hall, her mandible-cracking smile showing dimly in her ill-lit living room. The timely subject of that segment was the effect of the pandemic on American women. They gave the issue of sexual assault special attention—but not so much attention that the subject of Tara Reade came up. “Violence against women is a huge problem,” Biden said.