Joe Biden is very famous, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at his YouTube channel.
Mr. Biden has just 32,000 subscribers on the influential video platform, a pittance compared with some of his rivals in the Democratic primary race and roughly 300,000 fewer than President Trump. The videos that Mr. Biden posts — these days, mostly repurposed campaign ads and TV-style interviews filmed from the makeshift studio in his basement — rarely crack 10,000 views. And the virtual crickets that greet many of his appearances have become a source of worry for some Democrats, who see his sluggish performance online as a bad omen for his electoral chances in November.
In a normal election year, a former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee would have no trouble filling an arena. But the coronavirus has forced Mr. Biden to abandon in-person gatherings and adapt to an all-digital campaign strategy — a daunting pivot even in the best of times, but one made even harder by the need to compete for attention amid a pandemic and a once-in-a-generation economic collapse.
The shift has been clumsy for Mr. Biden, an old-school retail politician who relishes face-to-face interactions. He lacks the social media firepower of Mr. Trump, whose 106 million combined followers on Facebook and Twitter dwarf Mr. Biden’s 6.7 million, and whose White House coronavirus briefings have allowed him to commandeer the news cycle. Mr. Biden’s first virtual town hall last month was marred by technical problems, and some of his other digital experiments — like a soporific campaign podcast, “Here’s the Deal,” which did not rank among the top 100 podcasts on Apple Podcasts as of this week — have not gone as well as hoped.
Online popularity doesn’t always lead to electoral success. (If it did, New Yorkers would be listening to daily coronavirus briefings from Gov. Cynthia Nixon.) But underestimating the internet’s influence is a mistake, too. In 2016, Mr. Trump’s surging popularity among the internet’s grass roots was a bellwether that indicated his candidacy might be stronger than it appeared in traditional polls. Conversely, Mr. Biden’s lack of support from meme makers and viral-content mavens could signal trouble ahead.
The problem for Mr. Biden is not that he is old or out of touch. After all, other septuagenarians, including Mr. Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, have amassed intense and loyal online followings despite not being internet natives. And Mr. Biden was once an internet star himself. (Who can forget “Diamond Joe,” the beer-guzzling, Trans Am-driving satirical character created by The Onion, which launched a million memes during the Obama years and became an indelible, if fictional, part of Mr. Biden’s legacy?)
Mr. Biden’s biggest problem is structural. Most of our online political communication takes place on internet platforms that are designed to amplify content that provokes strong emotional reactions, often by reinforcing tribal identities. Mr. Trump’s unfiltered, combative style is a natural fit for the hyperpolarized audiences on Facebook and Twitter, whereas Mr. Biden’s more conciliatory, healer-in-chief approach can render him invisible on platforms where conflict equals clicks.
Those structural disadvantages hobbled Hillary Clinton’s 2016 social media campaign, which struggled for traction despite big budgets and her name recognition. The Trump campaign also paid lower effective rates for Facebook ads than the Clinton campaign because Facebook’s automated ad-buying system gives more reach to ads that generate lots of engagement.
Rob Flaherty, the digital director for the Biden campaign, said in an interview that he considered the 2020 election a “battle for the soul of the internet,” which required not just taking shots at Mr. Trump but inspiring people to come together around Mr. Biden.
“If you want to succeed on the internet without turning into Donald Trump, the best thing you can do is show empathy and compassion, and build community,” Mr. Flaherty said. “Our digital strategy is going to reflect that.”
YouTube, where progressives have only recently started competing for attention with an extensive network of popular right-wing creators, is particularly thorny territory for a centrist pragmatist like Mr. Biden. The platform’s left-wing commentariat, often referred to as “LeftTube” or “BreadTube,” mostly seems to consist of young Sanders supporters who see Mr. Biden as an establishment phony. Video compilations of Mr. Biden’s verbal gaffes, with titles like “17 Minutes of Joe’s Melting Brain,” have gotten millions of views over all.
Joe Rogan, a popular talk show host with an enormous YouTube following, endorsed Mr. Sanders this year. After Mr. Sanders withdrew from the race, Mr. Rogan stated that he would prefer to vote for Mr. Trump than Mr. Biden, saying of the former vice president: “The guy can barely remember what he’s talking about while he’s talking.”
Facebook and Twitter are friendlier turf for Mr. Biden, but he is still lagging far behind Mr. Trump, whose rapid-fire posts routinely make him the most visible figure on each platform. In the last month, Mr. Trump’s posts got 42.6 million interactions on Facebook, including likes, comments and shares, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data tool. Mr. Biden’s Facebook posts got just 3.4 million interactions in the same time period.
Then there is the grass-roots gap. In 2016, Mr. Trump benefited from the support of amateur meme makers on Reddit, Twitter and other platforms who provided his campaign with a steady stream of fresh content. Mr. Biden has no such brain trust, and several popular left-wing content creators told me that inspirational, pro-Biden posts did not perform nearly as well on their pages as generic anti-Trump content.
Mark Provost, an administrator of The Other 98%, a left-leaning Facebook page with more than six million followers, said Mr. Biden could capitalize on liberals’ hostility for Mr. Trump by giving the party’s base more red meat, and becoming more combative himself.
“You want to tap into that deep id inside the Democratic Party,” Mr. Provost said. “At this point, people just want to see a bully get smacked down. They want to see him hammer Trump a lot more.”
In the coming months, Mr. Biden will benefit from his proximity to Democrats with bigger online followings. This week, two videos containing new endorsements of Mr. Biden, from Mr. Sanders and Mr. Obama, got millions of views apiece and briefly stole the spotlight from Mr. Trump and his coronavirus task force. Mr. Biden will also benefit from the efforts of left-wing super PACs like Priorities USA Action, which has raised millions of dollars to rally digital support for the Democratic nominee online.
These efforts may still seem small in comparison with Mr. Trump, who has spent years building a vast data operation and a war chest that will allow him to blanket the internet with ads. Brad Parscale, who ran Mr. Trump’s digital operation in 2016 and is managing his re-election campaign, has said he does not expect Mr. Biden — or any other Democrat — to catch up to Mr. Trump, with or without social distancing.
“President Trump’s supporters will run through a brick wall to vote for him,” Mr. Parscale said in a recent statement. “Nobody is running through a brick wall for Joe Biden.”
For now, Mr. Biden’s supporters can take solace in his relatively strong polling performance, and the hope that a lull in the coronavirus allows him to return to the campaign trail this summer. And while some Democrats are worried that Mr. Biden’s online struggles are a preview of a rough road ahead, others don’t see social media success as a prerequisite for winning the White House.
“We’re not campaigning for YouTuber in chief. We’re campaigning for president,” said Andrew Bleeker, the president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic strategy firm. “He has a message of bringing the country together around the American spirit. He doesn’t need to change that to get views.”