Biden’s strategy from here
David Axelrod and David Plouffe wrote an interesting article in today’s New York Times making suggestions regarding what tactics Biden should employ to help him campaign in this unprecedented crisis. The article is certainly worth a read. Axelrod and Plouffe are experienced and successful political operatives who are best known for helping a certain junior Senator from Illinois reach the White House.
Reading the article as well as other recent blog posts has given me pause, however. All too often, we get focused on the trees to ignore the forest. It’s too easy to consider the micro level when the macro level is so hard to analyze. That’s the situation we find ourselves in right now.
Biden should respond to negative attacks and he should be working on improving his digital media presence. Those are tactics, however. Campaigns are won with strategy, and this period between the time when he earned the nomination until the beginning of the general election campaign after the conventions is a period for developing a strategy that will help take him to victory in November.
Strategy is actually what I study. I have a PhD in management strategy, and much of my research looks at the relationship between government and business. Despite such credentials, however, I have made some shockingly bad predictions, such as my guarantee that Mike Bloomberg would win the primaries. In my defense, that post was written before he performed so poorly at the debates. Nevertheless, I make no claim to infallibility.
That said, history is littered with candidates who squandered the period between the end of the primary campaign and the start of the general election campaign. Consider Mike Dukakis, who ran a brilliant primary campaign in 1988 only to find himself wondering “what now” after it was over. Instead of developing a strategy for the fall, he squandered a decisive lead over George Bush by spending his time in his home state of Massachusetts working as governor.
Similarly, due to the continued resistance of Bernie’s supporters, a well-crafted attack from the Russians, and internal divisions well documented in the book Shattered, Hillary Clinton entered the fall campaign without a clear strategy. This is a failing we cannot allow to happen again.
With all this in mind, I would like to make a few suggestions to the Biden campaign as to steps it should be taking to refine its strategy right now.
- Don’t worry about the Trump show. In the New York Times, Gail Collins and Brett Stephens opined that Biden is frustrated, wanting to talk about something other than the coronavirus. Axelrod and Plouffe pointed out that his confinement takes away Biden’s greatest strength: his ability to create connections with others. All this is true, but we should not lose sight of the big picture here: Trump is killing himself. His daily briefings have become a fiasco, and his approval ratings have fallen after a brief uptick at the start of the crisis. His top advisors know this, and they fret about the damage he is doing himself, but Trump just can’t stop himself. When he has an opportunity to get attention, he has to grab it, no matter how much damage he does himself. So what should Biden do? Just let Trump continue hanging himself. As a great strategist, Napoleon, once said:
Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.
2. Don’t get distracted by the latest shiny object. As human beings, we love novelty. We want to do the fun, new things rather than pay attention to the mundane tasks we are so familiar with. This psychological state is a critical problem in political campaigns, and it is one Democrats are especially guilty of. Consider Will Rogers’s statement:
I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.
The latest shiny object is winning states that are becoming more competitive than they once were. G. Elliott Morris wrote a post today pointing out that a number of sunbelt states had become more competitive of late. Part of the evidence for his argument is an analysis of election simulations that point to Texas as being a potential “tipping state,” putting the winner over the top to get the number of electoral votes he needs to win the general election. The problem is that if Texas is the tipping state, that means Trump has won. In other words, simply because of the fact that a state tips the election to one candidate or another does not make that state a swing state.
What makes a state a swing state is a narrow margin between Republicans and Democrats. The critical states in that regard are the same as always: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida. To win, Biden must win three of those four states. The only possible additions to that list are Arizona and possibly North Carolina. Unfortunately for people who live in other states, what that means in our electoral college system is that Biden must pay attention to these states to the virtual exclusion of all others.
This concern is not simply idle speculation. In 2016, Clinton became obsessed with competing in states she simply could not win, ignoring critical states in the industrial midwest. As we know, these are the states that gave the election to Trump. What’s more is that her husband Bill was sounding the warning bells, arguing vehemently that her campaign could not take these states for granted. Unfortunately, Hillary’s campaign ignored his warnings.
So what does this mean for Biden’s campaign? It means that he needs to start building strong organizations in these states, identifying supporters and developing the means to activate them via social media. He needs to build a close rapport with elected officials at the grassroots in these states so that his campaign will know when they have a problem to address before it is too late. His campaign needs to engage in intense polling to identify the issues and messages that will motivate the swing voters in these states. This is hard work, not as exciting as rolling the dice on Texas, but it is the kind of disciplined organizing that helped Obama win the presidency twice.
3. Unify the national party. Biden may be frustrated at his inability to project his empathy to the average voters right now, but his warmth is a real strength with the party activists at this time. He needs to be on the phone every day with party activists from across the country. His personal touch is what will avoid the kind of chaotic, divisive convention Hillary experienced in 2016.
The master of this approach was Bill Clinton. I experienced the Bill Clinton touch first-hand when I was working for his opponent Bob Kerrey in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Our campaign would talk with voters on the fence, who would tell us that they weren’t going to commit to Kerrey because he was not liberal enough. A week later, these folks would be supporting Bill Clinton, a downright conservative compared to Kerrey. The difference? They talked to Bill by phone, and he could woo anyone with his personal touch.
Biden has that ability as well. He needs to put it to good use right now to make sure Democrats are unified in the fall.
4. Raise money. We all know the saying from the former California state treasurer Big Daddy Unruh:
Money is the mother’s milk of politics.
Unlike the Clinton and Obama campaigns, Biden finds himself at a major financial disadvantage compared to Trump. This will become a major problem in the fall if Biden can’t turn it around. The good news is that Democrats are highly motivated and have shown that they will give generously. Biden just needs to start giving Democrats the means and the opportunity to contribute. If he sets up such a framework, any financial advantage Trump has will be short-lived.
That’s it. That’s what Biden should be doing right now. Yes, he should be developing a digital media presence. Yes, he needs to be planning the convention. But if he doesn’t accomplish the four strategic goals above, everything else will be for naught.
One of my political mentors once said:
The most important thing a campaign needs is discipline.
Obama was known for his discipline, and his campaigns reflected that characteristic of his. Trump, ironically, has amazing message discipline, even if he is a trainwreck of a candidate in every other way. Biden, unfortunately, is not so strong on this front. He needs to get disciplined, and fast, and focus on these essential strategic tasks if he is to be competitive in the fall.