Biden’s Good Tactics, Bad Strategy

August 06, 2020

You have to give Team Biden credit for their tactical instincts. They haven’t rested while Joe Biden polls ahead nationally and in battleground states. Instead, when surveys showed a close race in Texas, which Donald Trump carried by 9 points in 2016, the Biden campaign announced July 14 it would compete in the Lone Star State with television ads. The press took the bait and the Biden campaign savored the resulting coverage.

Pliant reporters allowed the Biden campaign to get away with refusing to detail its Texas spending. But Advertising Analytics, a media monitoring firm, says it was $65,000. Since Texas has more than 16 million registered voters, that amounts to a small fraction of a cent per voter. Would that victory could be bought so cheap.

Team Biden announced on July 30 that Ohio was a target, though Mr. Trump won there by 8 points. Team Biden understood they had to be more forthcoming about their Ohio offensive for the press to go for the head feint. The campaign declined to reveal the cost of its Buckeye blitz, but announced the campaign’s first Ohio staff hires and said Mr. Biden would appear in a series of virtual roundtables. The press again shared this exciting news, projecting the image of a confident Mr. Biden fighting on his opponent’s turf.

Mr. Biden’s buy is in two of the eight media markets in the state, covering about 13% of Ohio’s television households. The wave of hires consists of exactly two staffers. And the roundtables didn’t create news, leaving the press to focus on stories about Ohio being in play. Brilliant.

On Wednesday, with $109 million in cash as of June 30, the Biden campaign reserved $220 million in television ads this fall in 10 states, including Texas and Georgia. We won’t know until after Labor Day how much they’ll spend and where—but the point is to sound strong now.

Mr. Biden’s advisers have also stirred questions about whether Mr. Biden should debate. Of course he will; he did a dozen primary debates and performs better in one-on-one contests. But the conversation was an entertaining diversion that chewed up time while doing Mr. Biden no harm.

Don’t get me wrong. I have professional respect for Team Biden’s tactics. This is good stuff. So is Team Biden’s handling of campaigning during a pandemic with a one-man gaffe machine. He reads carefully crafted speeches from a teleprompter, providing reassurance for supporters while boring the heck out of everyone else.

For a long time Mr. Biden resisted interviews, except with carefully selected local anchors. When it became essential to be interviewed, the campaign avoided tough interrogators such as Chris Wallace of Fox or CNN’s Jake Tapper. Instead, Mr. Biden was Joy Reid’s inaugural guest on her new MSNBC gig. She offered up softball questions and no headlines but did buy the campaign more time: no need for more interviews until after the Democratic National Convention, since there’s so much for the candidate to do, from his basement, while not traveling.

Still, the Biden crowd may not be strategically adept. Mr. Biden is most electable as the nonthreatening alternative to the incumbent. So is it smart for Team Biden to have him adopt the language of his party’s left, promising “revolutionary institutional changes” in America’s economy, saying he will “transform it” and end “shareholder capitalism”?


Is it wise for him to call for a huge expansion of the federal government and a $4 trillion tax increase? To promise to repeal all the Trump tax cuts, including those for working- and middle-class families? To end the use of natural gas and coal by electric utilities? To provide illegal immigrants free health care? All so he can boast, as he did last week, that he’ll go down as “one of the most progressive” presidents in history?

Apparently one member of the Biden high command doesn’t approve of this approach. In a revealing moment Tuesday on Fox News’s “The Daily Briefing,” Mr. Biden’s wife, Jill, went out of her way to emphasize that her husband is “a moderate and that’s who he’s always been.”

As effective as Team Biden’s tactics have been in coping with this unusual campaign’s vicissitudes, the strategy of putting the candidate on the hard left could open him to powerful attacks. For the Trump campaign to turn Joe Biden into 2020’s Michael Dukakis requires the president to make Mr. Biden, not himself, the campaign’s focus.


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