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.