The days of door-to-door canvassing and whistle-stop campaigning seem as long gone as passenger rail travel. There was a time in US history, long before the 24-hour media cycle and instant social messaging, when running for any political office — from county commissioner to president of the United States — required a heavy in-person schedule replete with rallying speeches and souvenir buttons. A handshake and a look into the eyes of the hopeful was all voters needed to choose their winner. Yet America is witnessing a new style of campaigning: the invisible candidate.
Beto O’Rourke, the wild gesticulator who fancies himself the leader of the Lone Star State, is tucked away somewhere in El Paso after seeking treatment at a San Antonio hospital for an unspecified bacterial infection. The candidate for governor of Texas has been known to eat soil from New Mexico for spiritual strength, but it is unclear if the two incidents are related. Nevertheless, he is thumbing tweets nowadays that seem less unhinged than previous outbursts on the trail.
John Fetterman, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and now US Senate candidate, is taking time to recover from a stroke. Even though he looks, reacts, and speaks as if he needs a lot more time, like a year on the beach somewhere, to regain full capacity, he still won his primary election. Even his spokesperson hinted about his ability to pull a rigorous schedule: “Still, John is up for debating Oz — we’re not going to do this on Oz’s terms and timeline,” said Joe Calvello from the Fetterman camp just days before pulling out of next week’s planned debate. The opponent is Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose team is testing the ability of Fetterman to endure the rigors of a Senate run.
Perhaps Joe Biden made all this possible in the eyes of the electorate by hunkering down and hiding out in his basement during the early onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or maybe it was the easiest way to avoid prying eyes and vexing questions for a presidential hopeful whose in-person appearances may have taxed the body and mind of a not-ready-for-primetime political player. It signaled a drastic change in the way Democratic candidates stumped their ideology.
Former President Donald Trump held in-person rallies that appealed to a broad base of the electorate. His 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton preferred a more catered and culled audience. Of course, we all know how that election turned out. Trump continued the rallies in the run-up to the 2020 general election, while challenger Biden stayed at home and still won. Why such a seismic shift in style in a mere four years? Some say Biden would have looked weak and frail in public appearances, with perhaps fuzzy mental focus and acuity. So the basement campaign was born.
The Kennedy brothers defined modern-day campaigning as the people’s candidates. Visible, with rolled-up sleeves and suit jackets thrown across shoulders, Jack and Bobby walked and talked with constituents as friends. Yet, at home, they were the epitome of elitist.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair before he was elected president. Many Americans never knew about his disability, because the press was respectful and careful to manicure his photo coverage. Still, FDR was arguably more visible than Biden. In today’s world, every tiny move is recorded on cell phones and plastered on social media. It seems office seekers would be foolish to court heavy exposure when a cleverly crafted, edited, and polished message can be used in lieu of the dangerous unknown.
Keeping candidate Biden out of view enabled the populace to perceive an older man but one who could still read a teleprompter. His field trips on the campaign trail were nothing less than disastrous, as Biden was quick-tempered and resorted to name-calling when asked questions he didn’t like. How else would voters have learned about “lying dog-faced pony soldiers” and Biden’s hairy legs that captivated kids in the swimming pool? Of course, some might have considered that too much information, or just plain weird.
Traditional Versus Hunker Down
Republican candidates seem to believe in the grip-and-grin style to get the message out. Texas Governor Greg Abbott uses a wheelchair and is everywhere, rolling about his massive state, conducting business, and getting to know the voters. Trump refuses to hide out no matter how the media covers him; Oz and Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis seem to revel in the energy of the voters. But which style will prevail in the run-up to Nov. 8 — old-fashioned press-the-flesh or the invisible candidate?