Trump’s campaign has finally settled on a negative message. In Joe Biden’s America, cities will burn as radical leftists control his every move. It is a combination of a Nixonian law and order message and a characterization of the Democratic Party as a socialist breeding ground. Two premises underlie the strategy: Biden cannot secure our streets and he will be pulled to the extreme left of the Democratic Party. The argument is politically clever — but not sound. However, there is no consistent and organized effort by Democrats to form a counterargument. It’s a strategic imperative that we start to rebut, but then stay focused on our message: Trump’s incompetent leadership has failed to contain COVID, which led to an economic meltdown.
Joe Biden is simultaneously a “Loch Ness Monster of the Swamp” as Donald Trump Jr. says and a guy who, after 50 years of moderate politics, will be controlled by socialists. If Biden is an empty vessel for the left, Americans will not be safe in his America. This line of attack gives the impression that Trump is not the incumbent. These riots are not occurring in Joe Biden’s America; it’s Trump’s America. Half of likely voters surveyed in a recent Quinnipiac poll currently do not feel safe under his administration, which is probably in part due to the thousands of Americans dying every day of COVID-19 in Trump’s America.
There are direct consequences of an inconsistent Biden counterargument. In a focus group full of Obama-to-Trump voters in Wisconsin, one participant said that “all this pointless violence is spreading to my home.” Alone, this fear is not directly tied to Biden. The Trump campaign is running ads in Wisconsin and Minnesota that blame the protest violence on Biden’s “weak” response. The messaging is reaching these Obama-Trump voters that Biden needs to shift to his side. Like most swing voters, the participants watched neither the Republican nor Democratic national conventions. Nonetheless, 6 out of 10 participants believed that Biden will defund the police, even though he has never supported that policy.
Biden recently started rebutting Trump’s attacks. In a speech in Pittsburgh, he tried to flip the narrative on its head. He said, “Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected?” Biden’s campaign also put out a new ad condemning the riots and violence. This response is important, but we then have to change the narrative and focus on a pandemic that most Americans are deeply concerned about. The Biden campaign raised $365 million in August. It’s time for them to flood the airwaves with a laser-focused message on COVID and the economy that is amplified by constant news coverage of the pandemic. The top of the ticket sets the strategic tone for the rest of the ballot and right now, the Democratic story is ambiguous.
This election cycle, Democrats are like dogs chasing squirrels; they ferociously pursue one egregious Trump Tweet for a moment and then move onto the next. This “Golden Retriever Complex” has led to a disjointed Democratic message. For example, instead of aggressively reiterating the twin crises of COVID and economic depression, Democratic strategists are tweeting that Trump violated the Hatch Act by using the White House during the RNC. This strategy might be an effective argument if Democrats put it in the context of corrupt behavior, but they haven’t. Swing voters in Wisconsin don’t know what the Hatch Act is and it’s one of the many examples that illustrate how my party has lacked message discipline this cycle.
During the 2018 midterms, Trump desperately tried to change the narrative from Republicans trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act to a “caravan” of violent migrants headed towards Texas. The Democrats took the US House not because they turned their attention to this Trumpian deflection, but because they were concentrated on telling a story about health care. Democrats need to learn from this message discipline. I am hopeful that they will.
Henry Schulz is a guest writer for the Claremont Independent. He is a junior at Claremont McKenna College studying government. Currently, he is participating in the CMC Washington DC program.
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