President Joe Biden is going small to try to win big in November.
With 10 months to go until Election Day, the Democratic incumbent is all in on minimalist events — visits to a boba tea store, a family’s kitchen and a barbershop, for example — rather than big rallies.
Never much of an orator, Biden is leaning into his strength as a retail politician honed over more than 50 years in elected office. But the strategy also reflects what his team sees as a changed media landscape, where TikTok videos and Instagram stories can reach voters more effectively than television ads and speeches.
Last month in Raleigh, North Carolina, Biden picked up burgers and fries from Cook Out and brought takeout to what his campaign described as a “kitchen table conversation” at the home of Eric Fitts, who works in the local school system and benefited from the administration’s student loan forgiveness programs.
Biden’s campaign taped the visit, which was closed to reporters, and later released curated snippets online. But the highlight for the president’s team was unplanned. One of Fitts’ sons, Christian, shared a 57-second video on TikTok, offering a behind-the-scenes look at Biden’s drop-by, including the president admiring photos on the family’s fridge and his limo pulling out of their driveway.
The post quickly attracted millions of views, and Biden’s campaign was happy to steer reporters to it even though the campaign itself doesn’t use TikTok due to national security concerns.
“You have to go to the places where people are,” said Biden deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty. He added that in an era when people consume media on different platforms that cater to individual tastes, it’s harder than ever for campaigns to reach the voters they need.
For Biden, those voters are often the least engaged with the political process — younger, more racially diverse than the country at large and unenthused about a likely rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump.
“We have to widen the aperture of what the president’s time is good for, and who he’s talking to and why,” Flaherty said.
Biden kicked off the presidential election year with a pair of big speeches near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and in Charleston, South Carolina, meant to lay out the choice for voters in November. His campaign says he’ll continue to hold set-piece events, especially closer to the summer once voters begin to tune in, but they see as much — if not more — value in smaller interactions.
Biden’s less-than-electric speaking style and sometimes rambling speeches at larger events have become fodder for Trump and GOP critics to feed into the notion that the 81-year-old president is not up to another four years in the White House. Trump, by contrast, rarely holds retail events, preferring his signature rallies before large crowds of supporters — many of whom wait hours to get in — or appearances at sporting events.
The campaign hopes Biden’s go-small strategy is a way to show the American people a different side of the president that will help boost his lagging poll numbers.
It began in earnest this year with a series of stops at small businesses in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, where the president marveled over the selection at a local cycling store and chatted up the owner at a running specialty shop as he worked to highlight the effects of his economic policies. Fond of sweets, Biden asked an employee at a nearby coffee house whether they make smoothies, and one was promptly whipped up for him.
It’s not all about the softer side of politics. Biden aides say their goal is for the president — or those he’s meeting with — to amplify the president’s message too.
In Emmaus, Biden recounted to reporters that one of the business owners he spoke with had confided to him that “I can look at my kid now and say: ‘It’s going to be OK. We’re going to make it.’”
“I just came away from this really reassured that what we’ve done has had an impact not just here in Eastern Pennsylvania … but throughout the country. And we’re going to do more,” he said. “The job is not finished.”
Two weeks later, at a taproom in Superior, Wisconsin, the teetotaling Biden mingled with about two dozen patrons, several swigging beer during the mid-afternoon stop, after speaking at a neighboring brewery about the turnaround in the economy.
“Doing these stops allows the campaign to showcase this side of Biden that has always broken through the noise for the voters who aren’t glued to cable news,” said Kate Berner, a former deputy communications director to Biden in the White House.
At the Black-owned Regal Lounge in Columbia, South Carolina, Biden recently mingled with the barbers, staff and patrons ahead of the state’s Feb. 3 Democratic primary. Secret Service asked one barber to put down his razor while the president was within arm’s reach, sparking a few sideways glances and some chuckles.
In Michigan last week, ahead of the state’s Feb. 27 contest, Biden’s campaign gave a local businessman a ride in the president’s armored limousine from the tarmac alongside Air Force One to a local restaurant.
And on Monday, a day before Nevada’s primary, Biden swung by an Asian American-owned boba tea shop in Las Vegas and a hotel on the iconic strip to meet and greet a small gathering of workers of the state’s influential culinary union.
Democratic strategist Teddy Goff, a veteran of the Obama presidential campaigns, said Biden’s team recognizes that “you’re fighting for people’s attention and you’re not just fighting against Donald Trump.”
“You’re also playing against ESPN and very funny people on TikTok and whatever else people might casually watch in their spare time,” he added. He added that candidates can turn viewers off if they aren’t true to themselves.
“You got to figure it out a way that works for you, that’s going to make someone want to pay attention to you in that environment where they’d literally be doing anything else other than listening to a politician.”
Biden has always excelled at retail politicking, which Flaherty called a “specific advantage” over Trump that the campaign wants to capitalize on. Those viral moments — and even the ones that are only shared in smaller circles — add up, Flaherty said.
“I would rather have 100 outside voices saying Joe Biden is great than one piece of content from us saying Joe Biden is great,” he said.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Seung Min Kim in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and Darlene Superville in Las Vegas contributed to this report.