The most pointed concern circulating among the top levels of the Biden campaign and allies like the Democratic National Committee: Even with the pandemic-wrecked economy, Americans still trust Trump more on economic issues than Biden. One reason is that Republicans usually lead Democrats on economic trust. Another is that Trump played a famous businessman on television. And some voters are buying Trump’s argument that the downturn was like a meteor strike, and that he can bring back the strong economy he’d been overseeing before it hit.
Campaigns usually refer to that as an “enthusiasm gap,” and the Biden orbit is tired of hearing about it.
“I would rather two dispassionate votes for me than one really passionate supporter who is for me,” says Pennsylvania Representative Brendan Boyle, who’s been a Biden supporter since the campaign’s first fundraising event, in Philadelphia. “In terms of the election, it’s almost always about the incumbent.”
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It’s better to be a mystery than to be like Hillary Clinton, who faced what amounted to a 25-year negative-advertising campaign that left even sympathetic voters suspicious. Her 2016 word cloud was dominated by liar, criminal, and untrustworthy, with strong registering a bit too. Biden’s lack of definition is an opportunity, says the NextGen America director Ben Wessel, even with a group of voters who are well out of his base.
“Young people are giving Joe Biden a rare gift for a veteran politician: the opportunity to introduce himself,” Wessel told me. “Luckily, once they hear about his working-class upbringing, about where he stands on the issues like climate change and Black Lives Matter, and about how he’ll build a team of activists and experts that’ll listen to young people—folks are much more motivated to vote for him.”
That’s not going to happen on its own, Wessel said. “If young people hear from Biden that he really is the working-class guy who will stand up to corporate interests and listen to young people, the potential is unlimited. But if Trump and the Republicans can define him on their own terms, I start getting 2016 flashbacks, where lies about the nominee start sticking.”
Trump’s word cloud, from those same NextGen America focus groups, has shifted a little since 2016. Racist has gotten a little smaller, though it still dominates. Stupid, arrogant, and idiot have all gotten bigger for the 2020 version.
Biden and his close advisers argue that if any of this were as problematic as the worriers on the outside say, he wouldn’t have led almost every primary poll for a year, quickly wrapped up the nomination once voting started, or be leading Trump now by big margins. Most of the people telling them what they should do, they’ll quietly point out, spent last year working with candidates whom Biden defeated.
And if Biden’s going to win by default, then they’ll take that, too.
“This election is going to get down to, at the end of the day, ‘Who do you want to fly the 747?’” says John Morgan, a major early Biden donor. “You have two choices: Sully Sullenberger—steady, reliable Sully—or you have Steven Tyler, who has his shirt off, piercings everywhere, a snake around his neck, and has already been flying you for three and a half years doing donuts and loop-de-loops in the air.”