The conventional wisdom in U.S. politics holds that every presidential reelection contest is inevitably a referendum on the incumbent, unless said incumbent’s campaign does something forceful to make it otherwise. If a president’s doing well with job-approval ratings up in the high 50s (Nixon ’72, Reagan ’84; Clinton ’96) or 60s (Ike ’56, LBJ ’64), such presidents typically win reelection in a walk. The two most recent presidents to win reelection, however, went out of their way to force voters to compare them to a negatively conveyed impression of their opponent, as George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove told Politico in an interview about Trump’s strategy:
Rove noted that Barack Obama and Bush’s reelection campaigns started to define their general election opponents in the spring of the presidential election year. Obama delivered a speech attacking Mitt Romney on April 2, 2012 and Bush aired an ad against John Kerry on March 15, 2004.
Despite meh job-approval ratings, Obama and Bush won (albeit narrowly), with the general expert opinion being that they succeeded turning a “referendum” election into a “comparative” or “contrast” election.
Trump’s job-approval ratings have always been relatively lousy, and haven’t shown much sign of upward mobility. So, unsurprisingly, Rove thinks it’s time for his campaign to put the hammer to Biden:
“If the Trump campaign wants this to be a contrast election, they need to get about it,” said Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s campaigns. “They must begin to lay out the lines of attack against Biden. Their effort needs to be focused, disciplined, phased, and with resources to help the messages break through.”
This advice certainly plays to Team Trump’s own proclivities. His successful 2016 strategy was based on demonizing Hillary Clinton to the point where she was nearly as unpopular as he was. And long before the identity of the 2020 Democratic nominee was known, Trump’s reelection strategy was a combo platter of firing up his base and spending the vast sums he was raising to attack the party of his opponent as a gang of anti-American, illegal-alien-coddling, socialist fiends, while picking up any weapons utilized during the Democratic primaries and deploying those, too.
There is a problem, of course: It’s unclear a negative barrage of ads can get the intended grip on public attention in the middle of a pandemic and an economic collapse. So in going negative early, one of the things the Trump campaign is testing is whether they can “break through” at this particular moment. They do have the money to try, with considerable heft:
The cash-flush campaign is slated to spend more than $10 million on a national advertising blitz across broadcast and cable channels, as well as online. One of the commercials says Biden “coddles China,” where the pandemic originated.
“Joe Biden won’t stand up to China,” the ad declares. “He never has. He never will.”
Trump has personally approved the onslaught, according to people familiar with the decision. The president is expected to huddle with his political advisers Thursday.
The decision to go after Biden marks a new phase in the campaign. With coronavirus dominating the headlines, the reelection campaign has so far been restrained in targeting the former vice president.
Aside from the question of whether anyone is listening, there are some in Trump world who think a campaign going all Visigoth on Biden might clash with official efforts to depict Trump as a wise and restrained leader appealing to national unity during a crisis:
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, has urged the president to focus for now on uplifting ads highlighting his role in managing the crisis. Trump has also been hearing from friends urging him to lay off Biden for the time being.
Among the Trump allies urging restraint has been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has called for the president to focus on addressing the pandemic and wait on an anti-Biden blitz until after the Republican convention in August. Fox News host Sean Hannity has privately told senior Republicans that the president should hold off for now.
Assuming his campaign ignores this advice and goes wild, there are separate questions about the most effective lines of attack, aside from the claims that Biden’s soft on China. Trump has to be careful about addressing the Tara Reade allegations against Biden, since he doesn’t really want voters comparing Biden’s supposed piggishness to his own. He’s relied on others attacking Biden’s supposed news media allies for “hypocrisy” in dealing with Reade as opposed to Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford. But there are other Biden-bashing talking points in play:
Senior Republicans have been polling possible lines of attack against Biden. They say his relationship with China, his son’s dealings with Ukraine, and his oversight of the 2009 financial crisis are some of the most potent avenues.
But others are potentially less effective. Going after Biden’s mental capacity — something the Trump team has done relentlessly in recent weeks — has done less to sway voters, Republicans said.
Maybe Trump will soon stop calling Biden “Sleepy.”
If Trump’s campaign does go heavily negative for a sustained period of time, the goal will be to take a bite out of the polling lead the Democrat is currently holding nationally and in many battleground states. If it doesn’t work, the incumbent may face a choice of trying to boost his own chronically flagging popularity or cutting loose with a carpet-bombing of Biden and his party that will wake the dead.