Earlier this fall, President Joe Biden's reelection campaign poured millions of early advertising dollars into a handful of swing states in what seemed like a smart effort to gain an early edge in the 2024 presidential race.
The combination of TV and digital spots sought to educate key parts of the Democratic coalition about Biden's legislative accomplishments and the job creation and wage growth they spurred.
But a recent spate of underwhelming polls both nationally and in the battleground states suggest the ads gave the president little to no competitive advantage over his likely Republican rival, Donald Trump.
One of Team Biden's bets in making the ads, reports Politico, was that they believed Trump's opponents in the Republican primary would be simultaneously landing some blows on the twice-impeached four-time indictee. In any other party and political era, that would have been true. But the 2024 crop of Republican candidates, having learned seemingly no lessons from 2016, has mostly failed to lay so much as a finger on Trump.
Trump also appears to have convinced his cultists that Democrats are unfairly targeting his criming precisely because he is the candidate they fear most. So while some Republican voters worried earlier this year about Trump's electability, most of them have coalesced around the notion that Trump is their strongest candidate.
When The New York Times/Siena College polls dropped over the weekend and showed Trump besting Biden in five of six battleground states, a collective Democratic meltdown ensued. Some reactions to that poll were profoundly unhelpful: We shouldn't panic, nor should we devolve into charges of bedwetting. Former Obama White House communications director and Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer offered some useful framing in his Message Box substack that I will modify slightly: We should take the results of the poll seriously but not literally.
Pfeiffer went on to prescribe at least a partial solution that focused on specific ways to message Biden's economic accomplishments and combat the narrative that Biden has done nothing.
But the more I sat with it, the more it felt like a scalpel intervention in response to a much larger problem. To me, that problem appears to be twofold: Trump is a megawatt candidate stealing all the coverage while Biden is making a stodgy policy pitch in a vibes-only environment.
Those factors won't be changing for the rest of the cycle. So why fight it—especially after sinking millions into an ad campaign that failed to move the needle?
At this point, rather than trying to sell Biden's policies (which inherently pushes voters to weigh whether an incumbent president's record passes muster), the better strategy is clearly to start driving Trump's unfavorables through the roof. To some extent, it almost seems as if Trump is benefitting from some of the electorate forgetting how grating he is. Time to start reminding them.
In fact, nothing seems to boost Biden more than Trump himself. Focus Group podcast host Sarah Longwell has repeatedly noted that 2020 Biden voters who aren't particularly excited about voting for him again suddenly get a lot more engaged when they're told Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee.
Longwell also said some voters in her groups suggested they weren't sure they would vote if Biden is the nominee, but they also haven't grasped that Trump is the likely nominee on the Republican side.
"When you tell them, What if it's Trump again, they're like, ‘Oh yeah, no, no, no—I'm all in,’" Longwell said.
Another data point suggesting Trump is both his own worst enemy and Biden's 2024 bestie is the fact that the Times/Siena poll showed a criminal conviction could entirely crush Trump in the general election.
When the survey asked how people would vote if Trump, as the Republican nominee, were convicted and sentenced to prison, Trump moves from comfortably beating Biden in a handful of swing states to getting decimated by Biden in all six of them. The chart below shows Trump's advantage without a conviction, Biden's post-conviction advantage, and the net shift in each state toward Biden.
2024 NYT/SIENA Poll: Net pre-conviction and post-conviction advantages
Biden V. Trump (No conviction)
Biden v. Trump (Post-conviction)
These are just two examples of a simple fact: Trump has unique vulnerabilities. And if Biden can't manage to get enough oxygen to make a case for himself, then maybe it's time to stop fighting it and help Trump drive up his own negatives. Confront Americans with Trump. Make them grapple with the reality of enduring another four years of him in the White House (or likely much more), dominating the airwaves, constantly making a jackass of himself and the country. Remind people why they can't stand Trump and help him sink himself.
The strategy has three compelling upsides: It accepts the political landscape as it is, it plays on perceptions that voters already hold, and it intrinsically makes 2024 a choice between candidates rather than a referendum on incumbency.
And once squishy voters start remembering how incorrigible Trump is, particularly when he controls the White House, they may be more open to Biden’s lower-key policy message.