So far, the lack of standard politicking in recent months — or even at times, widespread visibility in the press — has not appeared to hurt Joe Biden’s presidential campaign at all. As the Democratic nominee widens his lead in national and state polls, I spoke with politics reporter Gabriel Debenedetti about Biden’s path forward.
Ben: Joe Biden is now leading comfortably in every reputable national survey and is doing remarkably well in the key swing states, too. Unless polling were off to a far larger degree than it was four years ago, he would romp if the election were held right now. At the beginning of the quarantine, there was quite a bit of concern that his relatively low-key strategy — a major part of which is sitting back and letting Trump self-destruct — was the wrong move. At the moment, it seems to be paying major dividends. In the coming weeks and even months, is there any incentive for Biden to do anything different from what he’s doing right now?
Gabriel: Sure, if only because the natural rhythm of a campaign isn’t a flat line through summer and fall. National- and state-level polls are a snapshot in time, but they also include a guess about what the electorate will look like in November, and that assumes a certain amount of expected activity from the parties and campaigns between now and then. Biden’s team will naturally ratchet up its organizing and get-out-the-vote activity as the fall approaches. He will also almost certainly keep increasing his presence on the trail, slowly — he’s said that’s his intention.
But I think there’s still a bit of a mismatch in a lot of the conversation around this question, between the talkers and the people setting Biden’s strategy. He has been low-key, yes, but those around him don’t think that’s necessarily why he’s winning, and their ultimate goal is to try and make his win as comfortable as possible. If they think he will have an even better chance of winning in November by amping up contrasts with Trump — whose disastrous spring and summer are undoubtedly primarily responsible for the size of his deficit — then of course he’ll come out into public more, to make that contrast clearer. They don’t actually think this whole campaign is 100% about Trump. Just … mostly.
The other piece of this, though, is that Biden has been open about believing strongly in modeling what leadership should look like, so he doesn’t want to get out there too much — we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, after all.
All that said, will he change his message? Probably not. Will he feel any pressure to rent a campaign plane and hit three states in a day? No. Is he even likely to choose his VP based on electoral politics? Nah. The shifts don’t have to be that big — the campaign doesn’t necessarily want all the attention.
Ben: You hear a lot of people say that voters need a reason to vote for a candidate, not just a reason not to vote for their opponent. Yet this election, unsurprisingly, is shaping up as a clear referendum on Trump. Democrats are far more motivated by their disdain for Trump than by their enthusiasm for Biden. How important does the Biden team think it is to get people amped about Joe?
Gabriel: They don’t downplay it, but their messaging has been pretty consistent: that this is about “the fight for the soul of our nation.” Like it or not, that’s about Trump, and of course this is a referendum election. But I think it’s easy to forget in all this that not one credible national poll has shown Trump ahead of Biden in more than six months. (This, by the way, is where I’m not sure our modern political media industrial complex is well positioned to think about national elections that aren’t particularly close.) It’s not like we all woke up one morning this summer and suddenly Biden was winning.
Which is to say, sure, they’ll put more of a positive spin on him over the course of the summer, as all campaigns always do around the convention — and one of his super-PACs has already started. But why start shifting your messaging right now, when Trump is looking more and more like Carter 2.0 (electorally!) every day?
Ben: The Trump campaign was hoping that Biden would commit some memorable flubs in the midst of campaigning, the way he often has in the past. Now that that’s off the table, at least for now, they’re pinning some of their hopes on debates. In what many took to be a sign that things aren’t going so well for the president, Trump has pushed for more debates in October (after signaling that he might not do any just a few months ago). I know we’re pretty far out right now, but how confident is Team Biden about those high-stakes showdowns?
Gabriel: Yeah, we’re very far out — who knows what the world will look like, let alone whether there will even be, like, audience members allowed inside the auditoriums? Clearly, the Trump bet on this couldn’t be more obvious. One thing I’ll say is that there was a strain of that kind of thinking in Bernie Sanders’s orbit before the final Democratic debate — the only one-on-one between him and Biden. And then Biden was a perfectly good debater for two hours. Let’s remember, for all the talk of his gaffes, they haven’t come in that setting. So … it’s a bet the Trump team is making. But not a particularly safe one.