We are living through an extraordinary and unprecedented time. It has required us to readjust our lives, our expectations and our plans. The business of politics is no exception. There's been a lot written over these last few days that this upending of normalcy is taking a toll on former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign. After all, in a non-COVID19 world, Biden would be having a great few weeks. Since his big win in South Carolina, Biden had been on a rout — winning big states and small, and building an insurmountable delegate lead. The political news media would be focused on his success. He'd be basking in cheering crowds, rising delegate counts and falling balloons at campaign victory parties.
Instead, he's stuck at home in Delaware, talking to cable TV hosts and Facebook Live audiences from a home-made studio, while President Trump (never a shy, retiring figure in the first place), has become a ubiquitous media presence. Governors, relegated to the sidelines for much of the Washington-based drama of the Trump era such as impeachment and Supreme Court hearings, have now grabbed the spotlight as a deadly virus threatens to upend the social and economic fabric of their states.
But, the hand-wringing from some in Democratic circles that Biden needs to ramp up his public presence, lest he be 'forgotten' or overshadowed by Democratic Governors like Andrew Cuomo or Gretchen Whitmer, is unnecessary and misses the point.
First and foremost, in a national crisis, the attention is trained on the person in charge and not the person who wants to replace him or her. This scenario works to Biden's benefit. Even before this horrible virus hit the United States, Biden's best opportunity to win in November was dependent on making the contest a referendum on Trump.
Since being sworn into office, Trump has spent almost every day with a job approval rating underwater. Scroll through the RealClearPolitics national polling page, and you find only a few, rare instances where Trump is beating Biden in head-to-head polling. This doesn't reflect Biden's strength as much as Trump's weakness. In almost every case, Trump's vote share resembles his job approval rating. In other words, if you like Trump, you are voting for him. If you think he's doing a poor job as president, you are voting against him.
What should concern the president's campaign even more is the fact that even as Trump's approval ratings have seen a positive bump in the last week, that hasn't translated to a stronger showing versus Biden. For example, the newest Grinnell College poll (March 27-30), showed Trump with the strongest job approval rating of his presidency (48 percent to 45 percent disapprove). Even so, he gets just 43 percent of the vote to Biden's 47 percent in a head-to-head match-up. Why? As Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson put it to me the other day: "The bumpers are not Trumpers." Driving Trump's job approval bump are Democrats and independents who aren't supporting his re-election. For example, the Grinnell poll found Trump's job approval among Democrats at 15 percent to 79 percent disapprove (-64). That -64 job approve is nothing to write home about, but it's significantly higher than the percent of Democrats who said they'd vote for Trump (4 percent) versus those who support Biden (86 percent): or a -82 score.
The current RealClearPolitics average of Biden's margin over Trump (6.5 points), looks very similar to the 2018 national popular vote margin of Democrats over Republicans in the 2018 midterm election (8.6 percent). In other words, the more this race looks like the midterms — an up or down vote on Trump — the better it is for Biden.
Trump, of course, would like to — and needs to — make the race a choice. And, to make the alternative - Biden - look as unacceptable as possible. But, with the focus entirely on battling the COVID19 crisis, the president isn't able to use his best asset — his bully pulpit, Twitter and campaign rallies — to go after the former vice president. This means that Biden has the potential to protect his image. The most recent national polls from NBC/Wall Street Journal, Quinnipiac and Monmouth show Biden's favorable/unfavorable ratings anywhere from -4 to +5. The less time that Trump has to poke at Biden's weak spots and vulnerabilities, the better for Biden. That's not to say Trump won't ramp up those attacks at some point, but being able to go into the race with some goodwill in reserve is helpful.
Moreover, as I wrote last week, Biden doesn't need to spend as much time attacking and defining the president when he's getting a lot of help from outside groups like Priorities USA and other SuperPACs.
Then there's the other, seemingly endless worry by Democrats that Biden fails to motivate Democrats. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll gave this theory new oxygen. The poll found Biden, as ABC News characterized it, with a "massive enthusiasm gap in a November matchup against Trump." The story went on to note that "strong enthusiasm for Biden among his supporters — at just 24% — is the lowest on record for a Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years of ABC/Post polls. More than twice as many of Trump's supporters are highly enthusiastic about supporting him, 53%."
Almost immediately came the comparisons to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, which suffered from a lack of support from traditionally supportive groups of voters, like young people and African-Americans.
But, this isn't 2016. A Trump presidency isn't a theory; it's the reality. In 2016, the only reality people had was the last eight years of Obama and the very well-known history of the Clintons.
More important, Biden's goal isn't to be a more 'exciting' alternative to Trump but to be the opposite of Trump. Biden isn't going to be a ratings superhero. He's not going to pack stadiums to the rafters with supporters. His message is basically this: I'm pretty boring but steady and competent. That may not work every year, but it is well-suited for a time of chaos and confusion.
It's also important to put the 'enthusiasm gap' into perspective. Trump was successful in 2016 not just because he had an energized group of voters supporting him (and turned out people who had been on the sidelines in previous presidential elections), but because he won a disproportionate number of voters who disliked both him and Clinton. In looking through the 2016 exit polls, CNN found that "voters who held their nose in the voting booth appear to have preferred someone new over someone who had been in politics for decades. Among this disaffected group, 44% favored change, while only 13% prioritized experience." Today, government experience is unlikely to be seen as negatively as it was four years ago.
No one in this business has been through a presidential campaign in the time of a pandemic. All of us — analysts, pollsters, candidates and reporters — are flying blind. But, what we can do is appreciate the moment we are in and not try to fit it into the box of what we "wanted" or thought the campaign would be about.
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