Joe Biden’s Challenge

May 07, 2020

Two of the Democrats’ smartest field marshals, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, penned a New York Times op-ed Monday urging Joe Biden to transform his basement rec-room campaign into a digital killing machine.

Their seven-point missive was pungent. Lay into President Trump and keep attacking. Be prepared for brutal counterattacks. Expand your digital reach. Get “world-class talent” to provide content. Use surrogates like “Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others” to elevate the message. Prepare for a virtual convention if Covid-19 keeps Democrats from assembling in August. Using digital tools, organize people at home to “call, converse online, write postcards” and share the campaign’s digital material with friends and family. In short, modernize and adapt.

Mr. Biden has already begun acting on their advice, preparing “virtual events” in battleground states where he’ll appear online with surrogates to deliver targeted anti-Trump messages.

Messrs. Axelrod and Plouffe gave good counsel, but it’s easier to enumerate than achieve. Take Mr. Biden’s digital gap: He has 1.9 million followers on Facebook and 5.3 million on Twitter. Mr. Trump has around 15 times as many followers on both platforms, 29.2 million and 79.4 million, respectively. From mid-March to mid-April, Mr. Trump had seven times the social-media interactions, 620 million to Mr. Biden’s 87 million. Team Trump spent years building its digital presence. Can the Biden Battalion achieve similar scale in six months? Count me a skeptic.

Then there’s the financial reality. Both candidates will spend tens of millions in each Great Lakes battleground—Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Democrats will also likely spend gobs on the presidential race in Arizona and North Carolina. The Tar Heel State could cost $50 million.

Perennially competitive Florida and Ohio are expensive, too. The Sunshine State alone could cost the Biden campaign and its super PAC allies more than $75 million. Then Democrats face the costs of trying to flip Iowa and Georgia, the latter a particularly expensive mission.

The Biden campaign’s decision on where to compete won’t be easy, especially since the former vice president depends on old-school fundraising from major donors and events, not online small-dollar fundraising like Team Trump. The difference is stark. The Biden campaign’s total cash on hand, including money from his campaign, the Democratic National Committee and presidential super PACs, was $90.2 million as of March 31. Mr. Trump’s combined total was $201 million.

Yet Mr. Biden faces a more important deficit. First elected to the Senate in 1972, he started running for president in 1987, 33 years ago. After nearly half a century in Washington, what does he stand for? What’s his vision? That voters have to ask is a weakness.

In the primaries, Mr. Biden emphasized he was the other half of Barack Obama’s administration and a traditional Democrat who could win because he wasn’t as far left as Bernie and Elizabeth. This made his political identity derivative, not based on what he has achieved or wants to do.

The Biden campaign wants the election to be a referendum on the president, so it may be enough simply to attack Mr. Trump. But that could fail if voters feel they don’t know who Mr. Biden is and what he cares about, especially once Team Trump tries to answer those questions for him.

Ironically, some of Mr. Trump’s supporters believe his campaign shouldn’t attack Mr. Biden until after the conventions, worried that Democrats will realize what a flawed candidate he is and replace him with a more electable figure like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

That’s a pipe dream. Nothing will now drive Mr. Biden to end his crusade; if you doubt it, listen to him talk about how his son Beau made a deathbed appeal for him to run. And if Mr. Biden did withdraw, Democrats would almost certainly nominate Mr. Sanders, not someone who didn’t run in the primaries. The activist base would revolt if party pooh-bahs tried inserting a fresh face at the convention.

Team Trump should understand that a disciplined assault on Mr. Biden is essential to making this a choice election. Messrs. Axelrod and Plouffe get this: President Obama started attacking Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat by name on April 2, 2012.

I understand the strategy, too. On March 15, 2004, the Bush campaign went after Sen. John Kerry with an ad that caused him to respond, about a war funding bill, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Those words cemented his image as a flip-flopper.

Given the candidates, 2020 could yield an almost exclusively attack-based campaign. When it’s over, the political landscape may be charred in ways we’ve never seen before.


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