After two weeks of back-to-back political conventions, the choices facing voters as defined by the two parties are clear. It is either, according to Donald Trump Jr., “church, work, and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism.” Or as the Democratic Party has framed the election’s choice, “decency, compassion, and fairness versus hatred of the ‘other’, fear, and greed”.
Issues are important, but underpinning them are the degree to which voters feel emotionally comfortable with a candidate, the message they are projecting, and confident that the candidate will “have their back”.
This is the reason why pollsters ask voters, “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” Or, “Who do you feel will fight for you?” In many ways, the answers to these questions can be more determinative of voting preferences than answers to questions about specific policies. They cut to the quick about how voters are feeling about themselves and their comfort level with those who are seeking to lead them.
I remember an Italian American dinner in 1984 where then-candidate Walter Mondale’s only applause lines were when he mentioned the name of his Italian American running mate. He then proceeded to lay out a litany of policies that were a perfect for his audience. But he never really established a connection with them.
When it was his turn at the podium, Reagan began by speaking about his grandmother, “who came to America with nothing but her hopes and dreams and worked her fingers to the bone…I stand before you the inheritor of her dreams and the beneficiary of her hard work”. Reagan won the Italian American vote.
And then there were the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry contests where the great-grandson of a robber baron, grandson of a senator, and son of a president was able to portray himself as a son of the Texas soil and who, despite having the same upbringing as his brother Jeb, had adopted the drawl of a country bumpkin and spoke simply and directly to voters. Bush connected in a way that Gore and Kerry did not.
Or Trump-Clinton in which a corrupt New York City billionaire adopted the role and demeanour of the angry outsider, the champion of the forgotten, running against the urban elites. He won because his opponent was a candidate who could not play the part of anything other than what she had become — an urban elite who was seen as having no feeling for the folks who were angry and felt left out. It didn’t help Clinton when she was caught on tape characterizing Trump’s working-class supporters as “deplorables”.
There is no question that policies of Mondale, Gore, Kerry and Clinton would have been far better for working-class voters of every race. They just were not seen as candidates who understood their plight and really cared for them.
In this year’s election, Democrat Joe Biden will not have the same problem that plagued Gore, Kerry, or Clinton. Despite his nearly five decades in Washington, he has maintained the persona of a compassionate “regular guy”, “working-class Joe from Scranton, Pennsylvania”.
I have long advocated that Democrats needed to expand their voter outreach to the white working, class and lamented that in some past elections their only strategy appeared to be to send Biden to Scranton to deliver a major address. Now, he’s the standard-bearer, which should serve the Democrats ability to expand their support base in November.
Biden, like the President under whom he served as vice president, is in a good position to win in November. In his corner, he has the Democratic Party establishment and most of the constituent groups who have, in recent elections, voted Democratic.
When Black voters shared misgivings over his Senate record, Biden apologised for some of his past policies. Now, Black voters have demonstrated their strong support for him. And while the progressive wing of the party is also struggling with Biden’s failure to embrace some of their signature issues (like Medicare for All, free public college, and the Green New Deal), he has worked to reach some level of accommodation with progressives, most of whom followed Bernie Sanders’ lead and endorsed the Democratic nominee.
Because of the empathy he projects and the personal story he tells, he also stands to win back a substantial number of White working-class voters who felt abandoned by Democrats. At this point, just looking at the demographics, it might seem safe to predict Biden as the winner. But there are still three months to go and much can change.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic behaviour of the President, for example, are creating chaos in this contest. But these factors are cutting two ways. Biden has been helped by President Donald Trump’s miserable handling of this crisis. First, Trump pretended it wasn’t there. Next, he dismissed its danger and failed to act decisively to contain it. Then, he blamed everyone else for its spread, mainly focusing on Democrats and the Chinese government. As the economic crisis grew, fearing it would affect his electoral chances, he pressed states to quickly reopen. This, in turn, only resulted in a dramatic spike in the spread of the disease. And, even now, he is demanding that schools and the economy reopen in September.
While Trump’s manifest failures have no doubt helped Biden, the pandemic has also constrained Biden’s ability to do what he does best, meet people, demonstrate empathy and broaden his support. With Trump still dominating the evening news, albeit with bad news for him, Biden is having trouble breaking through.
There are, of course, unknowns that could weigh in before November: A new foreign or domestic crisis (whether real or manufactured), foreign meddling, or GOP efforts at voter suppression. With many voters fearful of becoming ill, some states have sought to expand the vote-by-mail option. This has been confronted by stiff Republican opposition. Further fueling concern are “cost-cutting” measures being taken by the newly appointed head of the Postal Service. These have resulted in delivery delays and fears that the White House is actively seeking to sabotage expanding the mail-in vote option.
At the same time, the president is using Twitter to repeatedly make the unfounded argument that a mail-in ballots are open to fraud, causing alarm that he is setting up a case for rejecting the outcome of the election, creating a constitutional crisis.
With the conventions over, the race to November begins in earnest. As I noted at the beginning, policy differences will play a role for some, but for many voters the answers to other considerations will influence their vote: with which candidate do they feel most comfortable; which candidate do they trust; and will they vote because of fear of “others” or a desire to turn the page on division?
President Trump is betting on the former, Joe Biden on the latter.