intelligencer chats

Will Colin Powell’s DNC Appearance Actually Help Joe Biden?

General Colin Powell and Senator Joe Biden on January 9, 2001. Photo: CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

On night one of the Democratic National Convention, Republican John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio, endorsed Joe Biden for president. Shortly before the start of Tuesday night’s virtual event, the DNC announced that former secretary of State Colin Powell — who announced that he was voting for Biden back in June — would make a “surprise” convention appearance. Below, Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Gabriel Debenedetti, and Ezekiel Kweku discuss whether touting the endorsement of a George W. Bush administration official actually boosts Biden’s chances of beating Trump in November.

Ezekiel Kweku: I am very skeptical about the utility of a Colin Powell appearance at the DNC, to put it mildly. He was once probably the most trusted government official in the country, but he spent his considerable credibility laying the groundwork for the Iraq War — which, I am told, did not go well.

Jonathan Chait: Keep in mind George W. Bush, who had about a 30 percent approval rating at the end of his term, is popular now, and Powell was way more popular at his peak than Bush ever was.

Gabriel Debenedetti: In my opinion, there are two weird things about the Powell speech, really. One is Iraq, obviously, though Bernie tried using Iraq against Biden in the primary and it only went so far. Two is that he hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 2004. So … who cares what he has to say?

Ezekiel: I guess. I mean, he endorsed Obama in 2008, and Obama ran against the war.

Jon: I think the “famous member of the other party endorses our candidate” thing has some pull, as convention speeches go.

Ezekiel: Pull with whom? The Republican Party is unpopular.

Jon: The small but important number of cross-pressured voters.

Gabriel: Yeah, I think there are some voters who find it effective in general, but it’s most effective when it’s semi-surprising, no?

Ezekiel: Why do you think that pushes them toward Biden rather than away? It doesn’t matter what the average voter thinks about this. It’s the marginal voter.

Jon: Like, people who usually vote Republican but hate Trump. Biden is winning a lot of them!

Ezekiel: What about people who don’t like either party but are thinking about voting Biden? The fact that the Republican Establishment is against Trump is a feature for him, not a bug.

Jon: “People in both parties like him” seems like a pretty strong endorsement.

Ezekiel: Yeah, if you like the parties. If you don’t, the opposite. “Trump is not a real Republican” gets you nothing if people don’t like Republicans.

Jon: Gabe is right that Powell is barely a Republican anymore, but to the extent the media coverage emphasizes “Republicans are endorsing Biden,” I think that’s a validator. Parties may be unpopular, but bipartisanship is incredibly popular.

Gabriel: The calculus is: There are more (often suburban) voters who have voted Republican in recent years but are now open to Biden, and might be swayed if someone they respect (Powell, Kasich, whoever) goes for Biden than there are disengaged people who dislike both parties but who are still considering voting. Biden hasn’t really been going after those people, though, so much as trying to convince them not to vote for Trump. He could (maybe should) try doing that more, but I’d argue that would be a break from his central pitch.

Jon: I think the message is that Trump is a terrible person and Biden is a good guy.

Gabriel: Yeah, Colin Powell isn’t saying, “Trump isn’t even a conservative!” He’s saying, “You can’t trust this guy.” (I still think he’s probably a vastly overrated messenger at this point.) But it’s meant to be read as, “You’d think I’d like Trump because we’re on the same team and hate Biden for the same reason, but Trump sucks sooo much that it’s impossible!” More “Trump sucks, I’m leaving his team” than “Trump doesn’t belong on MY team.”

Ezekiel: I understand how it’s meant to be read, but I am not convinced that that is in fact how voters will read it.

Gabriel: Yeah, I think I agree! On Powell, at least. My sense is the Biden people are just convinced that the number of people who will be turned off by it is somewhat small, because their/Democratic leadership’s view is Trump is so overwhelmingly bad that the people with that view will say, “Ah well, Colin Powell? Not great, but Trump does suck.”

Will Colin Powell’s DNC Appearance Actually Help Joe Biden?