The campaign world knew that Joe Biden would announce his presidential bid Thursday in an early morning video release. But few were expecting it would be so dark and funereal.
Filled with extensive footage of white supremacists marching with torches, scenes of Nazi and Confederate flags and pegged to President Trump’s reaction to the 2017 racist march in Charlottesville, the 3-minute, 30-second spot was an unlikely announcement video — especially for Uncle Joe, one of the last of the happy warriors.
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Where other 2020 Democratic candidates talked about their biographies and offered sunny visions of the future, Biden launched his campaign with a nod to one of the nation’s darkest moments in recent years, casting the election as a referendum on the president and a need to return to core American values.
The former vice president spoke gravely about the violence in Charlottesville and the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who sparked it — “their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging and baring the fangs of racism, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the 30s.”
The reaction to the video was decidedly mixed — even among political professionals. Some hailed it as stroke of genius that distinguished Biden from the crowded Democratic field by announcing in stark terms his intention to take the fight to Trump in a way no one else has dared.
Others, however, viewed it as a serious miscalculation, an exercise in stepping on his own message as the heir to Obama’s inspirational legacy.
“Hope and change has given way to fear and loathing,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the liberal group Democracy for America, which endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and is neutral this year.
“The video is incredibly bizarre,” said Sroka, a veteran digital specialist who worked in Obama’s 2008 campaign and his administration, echoing other progressive activists and ad experts. “It’s oppressively focused on Trump while raising the question: Why did it take until Charlottesville to tell you Trump was a nightmare?”
The direct-to-camera narration (which was also used by Beto O’Rourke in his own announcement video) had a throwback quality that made it look like a campaign production from 2008 instead of 2019, reinforcing the notion that the campaign of the 76-year-old Biden was stuck in the past, Sroka and others said.
Several Democratic operatives who declined to be named said even the way the announcement was displayed on Twitter — by way of a YouTube link, instead of being uploaded into the platform’s video player — suggested that Biden’s team was unaware that the social media site’s algorithm would essentially inhibit it from going viral or automatically playing for viewers who could miss it as a result.
Still, the video did the trick for Democrats who want a candidate to take the fight to Trump. And it was played in full on MSNBC, amplifying its reach and Biden’s frontal attack on Trump for saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests.
Several ad makers who spoke to POLITICO said while the video wasn’t a standout, it effectively conveyed the message that Biden would directly confront Trump.
John Rowley, founder of Nashville-based CounterPoint Messaging, said unlike lesser-known candidates, Biden didn’t need a kick-off video to move him into the next strata.
“I think that the thing we know about primary voters is that they want to beat Trump. The strength of the video is that it makes that case and it makes the case surprisingly aggressively,” Rowley said. “It draws that out in the first 15, 20-25 seconds. That sort of surprised me about that.”
But another top Democratic ad maker who is not affiliated with any campaign, said the only surprise with the video was how bad it was.
“It looks in memoriam. The font is your grandmother’s funeral card,” said the ad man, who didn’t want to go on record trashing the campaign of Biden, the Democratic frontrunner. “To get people to watch your video and make it go viral, you want people to share it and say you’ve got to see it. Your first four seconds have to be the hook, something to get people to stay. The first 15 seconds of this is Joe rambling along. It’s the most Joe thing ever. It’s what you would’ve done in 2004.”
The video was made by longtime Biden advisor Mike Donilon — and not one of the party’s most innovative after message-meisters, Mark Putnam, who is working with the Biden campaign — leading to speculation that Putnam had a falling out with the campaign over the video, but two informed sources said Putnam shot footage for a separate video that featured Biden in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Republican ad maker Fred Davis, known for his memorable campaign commercials, said it was clear Putnam didn’t make Wednesday’s announcement, which he described as “boring.”
“Biden said the right things. He looked fine. The production was fine. But I’m a Mark Putnam fan. I want to see what he did,” Davis said. “You can say fine, fine, fine. But it was anything but thrilling and inspiring. It was boring. This won’t take its place in history of viral videos. Mark’s probably would have.”