On Sunday, hours before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against any gatherings of 50 people or more, a measure designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, President Trump signed an email to his millions of supporters.
“Tonight is going to be a bad night,” Mr. Trump began.
The email was not referring to the pandemic. It was about Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate.
“A bad night for Crazy Bernie and Sleepy Joe Biden,” Mr. Trump wrote. “For the first time, the American people will get to watch these two losers battle it out on national television.”
If Mr. Trump has used appearances in the White House briefing room this week to warn about the seriousness of the spreading coronavirus, the Trump campaign’s wide-reaching digital arm has mostly charged forward in email communications with supporters as if it were still operating in a virus-free world.
There has been the usual mix of dinner promotions with the president (just donate “ANY AMOUNT in the NEXT HOUR”), fund-raising gimmicks (“a short-term DOUBLE-MATCH”) and slashing attacks on Democrats — messages that could have been crafted for any other news cycle in any other campaign year.
But the normal elements of the campaign have been frozen indefinitely: Rallies have been canceled, primaries postponed, fund-raisers shelved, door-knocking deferred.
The president and his advisers are reckoning with the new reality of how to execute a digital-dominated campaign in the age of a pandemic, as are the two Democratic candidates, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Among the thorny questions facing strategists as the 2020 campaign migrates increasingly online: How does one ask supporters confined to their homes, and potentially unable to work, to dig into their wallets for donations? What crosses the line between motivational and tone-deaf? And just how much of business as usual should be upended as the offline country grinds to a halt?
“This is a weird time for campaigns,” Rob Flaherty, Mr. Biden’s digital director, wrote in an email to supporters on Wednesday, asking them to help “think through what this brave new world looks like” in a survey.
The Biden and Sanders campaigns have addressed the coronavirus more often and directly than Mr. Trump in their emails to supporters, and both continued to solicit contributions as the crisis has deepened, though Mr. Sanders stopped on Wednesday as he reassessed his candidacy.
So far Mr. Trump’s campaign stands alone in trying to create his own virtual reality, mostly ignoring the virus (with the exception of one email and text message a week ago linking to C.D.C. guidance), belittling Democrats and bashing the media even as the outbreak has upended almost every facet of American life.
The frequency of Trump campaign emails has slowed in recent days. But the tenor has remained the same: The campaign has hawked a signed “Keep America Great” hat, sold “Trump Luck of the Irish Whiskey Glasses” for St. Patrick’s Day and offered an exclusive “gold card” membership for donors of $35 and up. One email on Wednesday bragged about “record-low” unemployment figures, as administration officials raced to stave off a massive hike in joblessness. On Thursday, Mr. Trump’s campaign asked the “patriots” on his list to hit a “MASSIVE” $2 million fund-raising goal.
The gap between the Trump campaign’s boosterism and the unsettling reality of a nation under siege from a deadly contagion can be jarring, even if it goes unseen by most Americans — unless they are among the millions who have opted to receive Mr. Trump’s online campaign missives.
“You’ll never hear it from the Lamestream media and their Democratic Partners, but America is WINNING like never before,” read a campaign email last Friday, the same day that schools were closed, sporting events postponed and Mr. Trump himself declared a national emergency.
Josh Holmes, a top Republican strategist and former chief of staff to Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, noted that Mr. Trump’s digital apparatus had raised “astronomical” sums for Republicans and said the campaign should be cautious of adjustments.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it if it’s still performing,” he said.
“The digital component to these campaigns is more essential now than ever,” he added, “because you have all of these high-dollar gatherings that have come off the books and there is no real way to replace those revenues.”
Up and down the ballot, candidates and political party committees are seeking to find the right balance, as email fund-raising has evolved into an essential source of campaign cash.
“One of the first things you learn in digital comms is you really have to read the room,” said Emmy Bengston, a Democratic digital strategist, adding that campaigns are constantly adjusting pre-written emails, tweets and messages to account for world events. “No one wants to be tonally off.”
The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, who is up for re-election this year and facing a Democratic challenge, announced he was “suspending all campaign-related activities” on Tuesday. But many others continued to ask for donations and search for new supporters, including through advertising on Facebook.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has told small donors that its decision to call off traditional fund-raisers during the crisis “will cost us money” and urged them “to compensate for this shortfall.”
Meanwhile, a Democratic group called Pacronym planned to spend $2.5 million attacking Mr. Trump for his “incompetence” in responding to the virus.
Mr. Biden, who announced at Sunday’s debate that he had raised $33 million in the first half of March, by far his best stretch of the campaign, has continued to gingerly ask for money as the health and financial crises have gotten worse.
In an email on Tuesday, Mr. Biden wrote that “in keeping with the latest guidance from the C.D.C., I am emailing you from home in Wilmington.” He both asked for money and thanked poll workers in Florida, Illinois and Arizona who had spent the day trying “to clean and disinfect voting booths.” “Even during crises, democracy presses on,” read an earlier Biden campaign message.
The Sanders campaign has not sent any fund-raising emails since his lopsided losses on Tuesday, but it did send out four messages during debate day on Sunday. All four mentioned the evolving health crisis at least once as they sought contributions. Mr. Sanders raised $2 million that day.
Kate Bedingfield, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Biden, said the campaign was “balancing twin imperatives” of directing people to proper public health guidance and highlighting the need for the democratic process to continue.
“The work of the campaign doesn’t completely shut down, because participating in elections is a core part of our democracy,” she said.
The Trump campaign declined to comment on its online messaging. But Republicans who work with the campaign said that those behind the messages generally refuse to let political custom or niceties dictate their behavior, regardless of blowback.
The ultimate and perhaps only metric that may lead to a shift is simply whether the aggressive tactics stop working, and donations slow.
Last week, the Trump campaign circulated a clip of the Republican strategist Karl Rove waving a printout of a Biden campaign email on Fox News and accusing Mr. Biden of exploiting the coronavirus to raise money.
The email contained the full text of a nearly 2,500-word speech Mr. Biden had delivered on the virus; only below that was a typical disclaimer and donation button.
In a statement last week about the 2020 campaign migrating increasingly online, Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, claimed a “huge advantage” over the Democrats.
“The Trump campaign’s data and technology operation is the most sophisticated in history, so we’re better positioned to virtually engage voters than any other campaign,” Mr. Parscale said, highlighting a “national week of training” that would be done virtually.
As the severity of the outbreak has become more apparent, the Trump campaign and its surrogates have used Twitter to try to cast the president as leading with “decisive action” throughout 2020, even as virus updates have been almost absent from email communications.
The Biden campaign this week incorporated public health concerns about the coronavirus into its call scripts — the recommended text for volunteers to read to potential voters.
“During this pandemic, we are calling on all voters to follow social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said one script used in Illinois. “Hand wash before and after voting, don’t touch your face, ensure your machine is being cleaned, stand 6 feet away from others on line.”
Mr. Biden has used the crisis to lash out at Mr. Trump’s leadership, though his emails have struck a decidedly more reluctant tone in requesting financial support than the president’s.
“Even me sending you these emails asking for money feels different, and difficult,” wrote Mr. Biden’s online fund-raising director on Monday, adding, “And fund-raising? That all has to happen online now, to people like you through emails like this one.”