How Biden navigated pandemic politics to win the White House

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FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a drive-in rally at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

WILMINGTON, Del. – Joe Biden was fresh off winning the Michigan primary and effectively capturing the Democratic presidential nomination, a prize he'd sought for the better part of three decades. Instead of plotting a strategy to build momentum, he was contemplating an abrupt halt.

He gathered his senior team in a conference room on the 19th floor of his campaign's Philadelphia headquarters, the type of in-person meeting that would soon be deemed a public health risk. A former surgeon general and Food and Drug Administration commissioner joined on speakerphone.

As the coronavirus began to explode across the United States that March, Biden asked a question that would ultimately guide the campaign's thinking for months: “What should I be modeling?”

The health experts recommended the 77-year-old Biden step away from campaigning as soon as possible, both for his safety and that of staff and supporters. Biden agreed. He decided that he and every staff member would work from home starting that weekend. All field offices would be closed.

He wouldn't return to in-person campaigning for 174 days.

It was a decision without precedent in modern American politics. Barack Obama and John McCain returned to Washington in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign to respond to that year's financial collapse, but only briefly. In an era when voters are accustomed to seeing their presidential candidates constantly, the idea of a complete withdrawal was unthinkable.

That was especially true for Biden, whose tactile approach to politics is legendary.

“It was a hard call,” said Jake Sullivan, a senior Biden adviser. "If there’s no pandemic, he gets a chance to get out and do what he does, which is retail campaigning, meeting people where they are, having the opportunity to sit with folks and speak to crowds and walk down the street. That’s what he would have preferred, obviously.”