Biden is getting the opponent he wants. Is he wrong?

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If anyone is as excited about Nikki Haley’s second-place finish in New Hampshire as Donald Trump, it would be the man who watched Tuesday night’s returns from the White House.

Joe Biden’s campaign has been trying for months to convince anyone who will listen that the Republican primaries are a side show and that the American electorate needs to steel itself for another year of Trumpian chaos.

It has shaped Biden’s earliest forays on the campaign trail, including his Valley Forge kick-off earlier this month, where he warned Trump is “willing to sacrifice our democracy [to] put himself in power”.

Biden’s moneymen have been fundraising on the prospect with equal vigour. Just as Haley took the stage in Concord on Tuesday night to insist “this race is far from over”, the Biden finance team blasted out emails to supporters saying Trump had “all but locked up the 2024 Republican presidential nomination”.

Biden’s zest for a repeat showdown with Trump is both morally ambiguous and strategically short-sighted, putting the president on a path that many even in his own party find increasingly uncomfortable.

It may sound naive to appeal to morality in our age of bare-knuckle partisanship, but I’m going to risk it: holding up Trump as a threat to American democracy and then hoping he wins the Republican nomination is, even for those hardened pragmatists who populate the political classes, incredibly cynical. One either fears for the future of democracy, or one doesn’t. Fearing for the future of democracy — and then aspiring to use its potential demise as a campaign talking point reeks of hypocrisy. It also undermines the high ground team Biden wants to occupy.

But this is politics, not a morality play, and it’s Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who have turned this into a two-horse race, not Biden strategists. Still, the Biden team’s relentless focus on Trump has already shaped the battlefield in ways that may narrow the chances of a Biden victory.

National elections in the US are generally won in one of two ways: by energising your base so that they turn out in greater numbers than your opponent’s, or peeling off “swing” voters with your centrist appeal. Doing both is exceedingly difficult, because the hot-button issues that rile the base tend to turn off those in the centre. In post-Ronald Reagan political history, only Barack Obama in 2008 (winning nominally Republican states such as Florida, North Carolina and Ohio) and George HW Bush in 1988 (who won Democratic strongholds including California, Illinois and New Jersey) managed the feat.

By elevating Trump as a threat to democratic norms, the Biden team appears to be aiming for option one — a turnout victory. That makes sense, given how energised Democrats flocked to the polls in 2020 to vote Trump out of office, and did the same in the 2022 midterms to register their anger about the loss of abortion rights.

But 2024 is shaping up to be very different. Voters are not enthused by a rematch of two senior citizens. Turnout was exceedingly low in Iowa (though not in New Hampshire), and ratings for cable news coverage of the campaign have been disappointing. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found Americans are suffering from political fatigue and are inclined to look the other way. In Vanity Fair, Brian Stelter, the much-followed media watcher, dubbed all this “The Great Tune-Out of 2024”. Can Biden win a turnout election if voters are turning off?

It is not too late to change tack. Conveniently, voter attitudes towards the American economy — the kind of bread-and-butter issue that matters to swing voters in the suburbs — are beginning to brighten, thanks to cooling inflation. Biden has a centrist record he can run on, including domestic industrial policies and international alliance-building that have bipartisan appeal. The centre is also Biden’s traditional place of political comfort: Irish-Catholic “Lunch-bucket Joe” from working-class Scranton.

But if New Hampshire has given Biden the general election rival he wanted, he has to run a general election campaign starting now. Depending on how long Haley continues to fight, it could be the longest two-man race in modern presidential history. Biden needs to get his message straight and machine in place in battleground states — something those who have spoken to top Biden operatives say has not happened in earnest yet. In 2024, rallying the base won’t be good enough.

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