In the last week, Democrats have been walking around with more bounce in their step as most polling data suggest Donald Trump is in big trouble. There are numerous proof points: Trump’s low approval rating of 40 percent, a range of polls giving former vice president Joe Biden a double-digit lead over the president, and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that points out how Biden’s unfavorable ratings are significantly better than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s were at this same time in 2016. As for swing states, Biden leads in Florida and Pennsylvania, and even in traditionally GOP strongholds like Texas and Arizona the race looks like a toss-up.
While Trump may have driven himself into a ditch, Biden still suffers from an enthusiasm deficit. In the most recent Economist/YouGov poll, in mid-June, voters were asked how they felt about their candidates. Among Trump supporters, 68 percent responded that they were enthusiastic, compared with only 31 percent of Biden supporters.
Considering how challenging it might be to vote in November, in the midst of a resurgence of the coronavirus, enthusiasm will be a crucial factor in ensuring people will actually vote. Enthusiastic, inspired voters will stand in line for hours, ignore their other responsibilities, or even risk being indoors with strangers for the chance to flip a switch for their candidate. It’s no wonder Trump is doing whatever he can to electrify his base.
In conversations with my panel of 500 voters, I explored what was dampening the enthusiasm for Biden, especially among the 49 percent of his supporters who are “satisfied but not enthusiastic.” The voters who unequivocally support Trump gave the standard anticipated answers, calling Biden old, bumbling, and corrupt. But the responses from other, less-committed voters have implications for the four months between now and Election Day, when both Biden and Trump will have innumerable opportunities to make their respective cases. Although the candidates and their campaigns cannot control the spread of the coronavirus or the state of the economy, they can control the stories they tell, the tactics they use, the teams they announce, and the way they spend their precious campaign funds.
There were three major themes from these voters. First was a concern over whether Biden would be able to restore our economy as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic fades. Most give Trump credit for what they saw as a booming economy prior to COVID-19. Said Gennefer from Rhode Island, “I sometimes feel that I would be better off personally if Trump won in November, even though I can’t stand him. I worry that Biden will spend too much on every program, worsen the deficit, and raise my taxes higher than ever to pay for it.” Added Burton from Wisconsin, “I think Biden has great experience, but managing the economy is probably his weakness, and it’s my biggest concern about him.”
Secondly, voters still perceive Biden’s main message to be “I am not Trump,” and they are asking for more. There is very little American voters don’t already know about Trump. They all know he has a questionable character and a revolving door among his staff; they know he recommended ingesting disinfectant; that he recently said to “slow the testing down”; that he is obsequious with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and hard on Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany; and that he lies — but voters have already incorporated those factors into their decision-making. What would increase enthusiasm for Biden is more about Biden. This is especially important for younger voters, who are a critical group. Said Jared from Massachusetts, “It feels to me like Biden doesn’t have strong convictions about policy positions, and so I just don’t know what he will fight for.” And Emily from Minnesota added, “My friends and I keep wondering what Biden is going to do for us, but all we hear is how bad Trump is — and that Biden will do better. Give me a gun control speech or a climate change speech with teeth instead of a down-on-Trump speech.”
The third pattern is that many voters see Biden as too old and tired looking to unite our country and bring about true innovation and reform. Most voters still report rarely seeing Biden, and, if they do see him, perceive him to be frail. “I know we are all concerned about COVID, but get out there!” suggested Linda from Massachusetts. And many voters echoed the words of Joel from Illinois, “We are a country of 330 million and the best we can do is these two old guys?” Biden is speaking out more, but with the exception of his June speech in Philadelphia, his appearances are neither compelling nor memorable.
Although the vice-presidential selection process is good media drama, over 80 percent of my voters say that the choice will have little impact on their decision to vote for Biden or their enthusiasm level. “Biden can pick a janitor for VP and I will still vote for him,” said Tom from North Carolina.
These themes have compelling implications for the Biden camp. The first is about the economy. Although Biden is in the midst of a VP selection, he should consider making early decisions about his economic team and shining a bright light on them. Putting someone like Michael Bloomberg in charge would go a long way to weakening Trump’s loudest claim: that the Democrats will destroy the economy.
And, although Biden supporters have noticed that he is speaking out more frequently, the politically experienced Biden team could use more creative marketing people. A look at his Instagram account in the last week has three comments about affordable health care, two that say we should wear masks, one noting that COVID cases have increased, one anti-Trump message, and one message about LGBTQ rights. There are no videos, no photos with voters, no refreshing ideas, and no shots of Biden out for his morning run, which would do a lot to help people understand his energy level.
Of course, the fall will be brutal for the Biden campaign, independent of the numbers. President Trump and his team will probably float new allegations about his son Hunter Biden and his business dealings in Ukraine; find new women who thought Biden came a bit too close to them; share new videos of Biden misspeaking; and highlight a long list of bad decisions Biden has made in his political career. And Trump will try to escape responsibility for the mess we are in. According to Democratic consultant Paul Begala, Trump may just blame the coronavirus on Vice President Mike Pence’s mismanagement, whom he named as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and replace him with former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
Rosy poll numbers in June are nice, but it is hardly time for the Biden team to take a victory lap. Trump is a skilled counterpuncher and has recovered from dips in support many times before. In November, voters will possibly be tired of wearing masks, exhausted from politics and divisiveness, and still worried about their ability to make ends meet financially. It’s time for the Biden team to step it up — and to give more Americans a reason to be excited again.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html