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How Biden can be as successful as his party

Nervous Democrats have been on an emotional roller coaster lately. In just the last week, there have been polls showing President Joe Biden decisively behind in a rematch with Donald Trump (bad news), triumphs in various state elections (good news) and Senator Joe Manchin’s announcement that he will not run for re-election (ymmv).

Add it all up, however, and there is a clear message: Biden is in trouble, and he won’t be able to get out of it without upsetting parts of the Democratic coalition.

It’s certainly true that last week’s election results Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — consistent with Democrats’ unusually strong midterm performance last year — are positive developments for Biden’s party. But it’s a mistake to treat them as refuting the polls. For starters, pre-election polling suggested Democrats would win all these races. If the wins came despite pessimistic polls, that might be evidence that Biden’s low ratings are driven by polling error as well. But that’s not the case.

And there are signs of bad news for Biden in the results. In Virginia, even though Democrats secured majorities in both houses of the legislature, Republican candidates handily outperformed Trump’s benchmarks. In Kentucky, incumbent Governor Andy Beshear ran dramatically ahead of Biden. That’s quite an achievement for Beshear and perhaps a sign of how Democrats could improve their performance in other red states, but the whole premise of Beshear’s candidacy was that he was different from Biden and the national Democratic brand.

In Ohio, abortion-rights activists won a tremendous victory for their cause. And there is no doubt that abortion rights are a strong issue for Democrats almost everywhere outside of the Deep South. But that same poll that sent Democrats into a tailspin last week also shows Biden is already the preferred candidate on this issue. It’s not that voters are unaware of the difference between Biden and Trump, or that they like Trump’s position. It’s that they care less about abortion rights than they do about issues — notably crime, immigration, the economy and national security — on which Trump has an advantage.

The reality is that Biden is currently on track to win a smaller share of the vote than he did in 2020. That’s good enough to still win in a place like Virginia, but it’s not sufficient to retain the White House.

The Biden campaign is clearly aware of this, as evidenced by its decision to invest in an early advertising blitz. But campaigns are not won by advertising alone. Especially in presidential elections, “earned” media coverage on the news is more important than what people see in ads. And what voters have seen and read about is a president who responded to a better-than-expected midterm showing by eschewing the post-midterm triangulation that most successful presidents execute.

Polling released by a new group, Blueprint 2024, funded by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, reveals some of the cost of this approach: Voters do not see Trump as any more ideologically extreme than Biden, and they are often unfamiliar with Biden’s more moderate policy achievements.

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For example, the polling documents that 84 per cent of voters have heard about Biden’s student loan forgiveness initiatives — a borderline policy that is supported by just 52 per cent of the public. By contrast, 83 per cent of voters support the Inflation Reduction Act provision that caps out-of-pocket Medicare prescription drug spending at $2,000 a year, but only 49 per cent of voters have heard about it. That’s in part a Republican messaging success — or rather, a non-messaging success, as they voted unanimously against the IRA but tend not to talk about this provision — but it also reflects choices by Democrats about what to emphasize. Blueprint finds that only 48 per cent of voters know that oil and gas production has increased to record levels under Biden, for instance, and only 46% know that the deficit has fallen under Biden, or that Biden has boosted funding to police departments.

The administration doesn’t like to talk about these topics because they divide Biden’s coalition. He even made the unusual decision to pivot left after winning the primary, forming a unity task force with Bernie Sanders and shifting a few policy positions in the direction of his defeated rival.

Disunity can, of course, be costly. The risk that embittered progressives could throw the election to Trump, while unlikely, can’t be dismissed altogether. But the risk of ceding the center ground is real — whether to Trump or to someone like Joe Manchin, who is inevitably being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate and who progressives demonize despite his clear value to the party.

Biden can minimize this risk with a shift, not so much in policy substance but in emphasis — on deficit reduction, for example, or on reducing bureaucracy. At a minimum, his campaign should focus less on selling the Biden record to the progressive base and more on publicizing his more moderate policy achievements. If that provokes some dissention from the left, that may not be all bad either, as conflict drives coverage and awareness.

When you’re on track to lose, you need to take some calculated risks to try to win. And notwithstanding last week’s election results, that’s exactly where Biden finds himself.

(Published 13 November 2023, 04:27 IST)

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