With less than 90 days to go until the election, polls indicate the likelihood of a Biden win. But as a campaign operative, I can envision several scenarios that could dictate either a Biden victory or a Biden loss.
How Biden Can Win
Stay on message. A Biden victory will depend on the ruthless discipline of his campaign’s message narrative, which should be built around the intersection of the health and economic ramifications of the Covid-19 virus and the seismic effects of George Floyd’s killing on the conscience of our country. These are Trump’s biggest liabilities and should be a relentless focus of the Biden campaign.
The daily message should showcase Biden’s innate ability to project empathy, strength and knowledge in addressing these issues. Let the vice presidential nominee and other surrogates talk about everything else.
I realize Biden had to produce a lot of detailed policy plans to help him unite with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but talking policy (see Walter Mondale in 1984) will not get Biden over the finish line. Talking policy is just ammo for Trump to depict Biden as out of the mainstream for voters who dislike Trump, but need to be convinced that Biden shares their mainstream values. Biden can talk about policy when he is in the Oval Office.
Watch the map. The Biden path to victory follows both an Electoral College map and a Covid map. Four states that have seen large spikes in Covid-19 cases this summer—Florida, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina—were all lost by Hillary Clinton by roughly 5 points or less. Those states represent 81 electoral votes.
This is a math game for the Biden campaign and it needs to deploy resources judiciously. Trump beat Clinton with 306 electoral votes to her 232. If you add in the three states where Trump won by less than 1 percent—Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) and Michigan (16 electoral votes)—any combination of them and the Covid map that nets Biden 38 electoral votes would make him the next president, as long as the rest of the map stays the same.
Staying on the best path to 38 electoral votes should be the prime focus of the campaign, its deployment of resources and the candidate’s scheduling. Biden feels a deep loyalty to Democratic officials and activists around the country, for whom he was a frequent point of contact in the White House and a campaign surrogate. But he must resist their entreaties to target states that do not offer the best path for 270 electoral votes, which would deplete resources and dilute the focus of the campaign. Campaigning hard in Georgia might make sense because two U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs. If Biden can help take one of them, then Georgia makes sense as a target. However, if by mid-September both those Senate seats seem out of reach, Biden needs to concentrate on the best trajectory to 270 electoral votes even if it doesn’t include Georgia.
Focus on the present. Biden began his campaign promising to restore normalcy, but the remaining days of the race are about convincing voters that he knows how to fix what is broken. The former VP has a penchant for discussing the past—he should stop doing that. At 77, his age is also an issue for some voters and Trump has already begun the smear of painting Biden as too old, out of touch and cognitively challenged.
Biden should not talk about the past other than to having been vice president under Obama, and keep even those references to a minimum. Obama’s involvement in the campaign should be enough of a reminder of that part of Biden’s past, and Obama is not on the ballot. The Biden candidacy should not be viewed by voters as the third Obama term, which would give Trump an opportunity to relitigate the mistakes of the Obama administration.
For the past four months of Covid, the race has indeed been Trump vs. Trump. Trump has badly mishandled the coronavirus response, resulting in more than 160,000 deaths and severe disruption to the economy and record unemployment. Trump also owns his disgraceful actions surrounding the killing of George Floyd, which have driven a wedge through the nation.
Left with few options at this stage in the campaign to shift the focus from coronavirus to Biden’s vulnerabilities, Trump and his team are beating the drums to open the schools, painting Biden and the Democratic Party as bad for the economy, wrongly suggesting that Biden supports defunding the police, and claiming that Biden is not up to the job. Trump may be bad, but he plans to make Biden seem like a worse alternative by Election Day.
Winning campaigns have a better understanding of the strengths and liabilities of their opponents than the opponents themselves do. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager said it best recently when he suggested that the Biden campaign should be looking hard at all the ways they could lose this election.
The reality is that Biden has not had a tough election since his upset win for the Senate in 1972. His campaigns for president in 1988 and 2008 were not ready for prime time. This is Biden’s moment to show he knows how to win a competitive race against someone like Trump who can never be underestimated or counted out until the last votes are tallied.
How Biden Can Lose
Drop the ball on voting itself. One way to lose the election is to let Trump steal it from you. Trump is already laying the groundwork by casting absentee ballots and voting by mail as the next massive fraud created by the Democrats. In all the battleground states, the campaign needs to ensure that its top surrogates and legal team do not allow the Trump campaign to suppress the vote.
As an example, what happens to facilitate or impede the ability of people to vote in Atlanta and surrounding communities in Fulton County will determine whether Biden really has a chance to win Georgia, and whether the Democrats have any real opportunity to win one or both of the U.S. Senate seats up for grabs there.
Getting all the votes counted in Georgia should be a full-time job between now and Election Day for the Biden campaign. And standing in the way will be Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who, in his former job as secretary of state, was accused of suppressing the vote in order to assist his gubernatorial race against Stacey Abrams in 2018. The current Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who oversees the process for determining voter eligibility and the numbers of polling places across the state, could follow Kemp’s lead. These types of efforts are not confined to any one state, but are of a piece with the Trump campaign’s messaging nationwide.
Trump, like he did in 2016, is already casting doubt on the validity of the 2020 election and even floated the idea of delaying the election. That suggestion landed like a lead balloon with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, usually Trump’s ally, stating that Election Day will remain November 3. However, it is likely that “election night” will turn into “election week” due to counting absentee ballots and votes by mail. Unless Biden wins in a blowout, like Ronald Reagan did in ousting President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Biden should expect Trump’s election night speech to be about how the election was stolen from him. Biden and his surrogates need to prepare now to mount a counteroffensive to this part of the Trump strategy.
Cede the narrative to Trump. Trump is a master at controlling the news, and another way Biden could lose is by letting Trump and his campaign dictate the focus of the campaign. The former vice president should memorize the findings of The New York Times poll on why 6 percent of 2016 Trump voters in six bellwether states will not vote for Trump in 2020 under any circumstances.
These voters say Biden would be better at unifying the country and they disapprove of Trump’s handling of race relations in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. They also trust Biden to do a better job managing the coronavirus, health care and immigration. These issues should be the core of Biden’s message from now until Election Day. Message discipline has never been the hallmark of Biden in any of his previous presidential campaigns, but he must be rigorous in sticking to his key points this time around.
Trump’s personal attacks on Biden and his family are likely to increase the more desperate Trump becomes. Biden should understand that Trump’s attack on Biden’s son Hunter for serving on the board of the Russian energy company, was just a warmup. Trump and his campaign will soon level unsubstantiated personal attacks on Biden and his family as well as outright lies about Biden’s overall health and fitness for the job.
But thanks to Mary Trump’s book on the dysfunction of the Trump family, Biden can still be the candidate of family values, a role he is uniquely suited to play. He should speak in the affirmative about his family, including the loss of his son Beau Hunter’s struggle with addiction, his relationship with his grandchildren and the loving relationship he shares with his wife, Jill. Biden’s family is like most American families—nothing is ever perfect and dealing with loss is part of life.
Biden’s family history of losing his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972 and raising his two sons as a single parent, while serving as a newly elected U.S. senator, is a part of the Biden persona that showcases his empathy, care for others, and ability to recover from loss.
Let it feel personal. Biden grew up in the age of politics when you could disagree on the substance of issues, but would never make it personal. If Biden now feels betrayed by someone like Lindsey Graham, his former friend and Republican colleague in the Senate, but now a Trump attack dog, for his investigation of Hunter Biden’s service on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, that is a problem. Biden needs to prepare himself for several weeks of vicious and untrue allegations about him and his family. He can’t wait for the attacks—he must develop a plan for how to handle what is likely coming at him.
Fail to fight back. The former VP is in a street fight with a bully from Queens. Politics is different in Queens than in Delaware. Biden needs his own guy from Queens at his campaign table to help him anticipate the low blows from Trump and how to fight back. There is no one smarter and tougher than Andrew Cuomo, a son of Queens, who has shown his leadership during the Covid crisis and rightly earned national praise as America’s governor. Cuomo has already shown during the Covid crisis how to handle Trump, with a combination of faint praise and searing criticism. Biden should call Cuomo today and get him involved in the campaign at a high level.
The Next Big Challenge: The VP Choice (and Cabinet)
In Biden’s own account of why he accepted Obama’s offer to join him on the ticket in 2008, he said the decision was largely based on the role Obama promised him, their shared sense that their differences were complementary, the compatibility they felt, and the fact that Biden believed he could help Obama govern.
However, Biden’s own selection of a running mate is a different, more complicated matter. For starters, Biden’s age is an issue for some voters and Trump will play this up. Second, Biden has described himself as a transitional figure and bridge to the future. Third, even though he has refused to pledge to serve only one term, the likelihood that Biden will be a one-term president, spoken or not, places enormous pressure on his running mate. She will be scrutinized and vetted like no other nominee for vice president.
Biden, however, puts a premium on personal chemistry and loyalty to those who’ve served him for a long time. Reports indicate that Susan Rice is a finalist for the VP slot because of her close working relationship with Biden from the Obama administration. Biden is reportedly very comfortable with Rice because he knows her the best of all the vice presidential contenders on his list. But the decision of whether Rice, who is very competent and smart on all matters of foreign policy, is the best choice should not just be based on her previous close working relationship with Biden.
After all, Biden hardly knew Obama until they were on the debate stage together during the 2008 campaign. That’s not to say Biden should pick someone with whom he fails to have chemistry—rather, Biden has to make sure that his comfort zone stretches beyond those with whom he has worked previously. The traditional vice presidential selection admonition of “do no harm” still holds, along with the strong consideration devoted to that person’s ability to take over as president.
There is one other important announcement that could be made before the convention—that being who would be Biden’s first choice for secretary of State. The former vice president knows better than anyone how fragile the world’s alliances are as well as the military threats from Russia, North Korea and Iran. The economic and foreign policy challenges with China get more complicated every day.
There is just one person for this job and it is Mitt Romney. Just picture Biden as the Democratic president and Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, reassuring world leaders that America is once again united and ready to take the lead in solving the world’s problems.
Romney is very smart (he flagged Russia as the primary threat in 2012), honest and a patriot. Given the damage that Trump has done to America’s leadership position in the world in less than four years, a team of Biden and Romney could restore America’s position of international leadership by the end of his term. And it would send a signal to voters that a Biden administration would work across the aisle to get things done that are in the interest of the American people.
The Final Wild Card: Biden’s Stutter
There is one last difficult challenge for Biden and it deals with his stuttering. I have witnessed firsthand the challenges my older brother has faced since the age of 7 to overcome his stuttering. His courage and determination have resulted in significant progress—but not a complete end to his stuttering.
The in-depth article in the January/February Atlantic by John Hendrickson, a life-long stutterer, told the story of how hard Biden has worked his whole life to overcome his stutter. But, in the eyes of Hendrickson and others, it is present today in certain circumstances, most notably in the Democratic primary debates.
The so called Biden gaffes, mangling of certain words, looking down when he speaks—all point to an occasional, present-day struggle with stuttering. Yet Biden avoids acknowledging the stutter in the present tense. One can understand the importance of Biden’s narrative of how he overcame his stutter, but the stakes here are way too high not to acknowledge that his stutter still occasionally exists.
Issaac Bailey, who has also struggled with stuttering, wrote in Nieman Reports in March 2020 that when he watched Biden squeezing his eyes during a debate, Bailey recognized that “this type of facial tic is common to stutters who have to, in a split second, decide to struggle through a speech block or quickly substitute words on the fly.”
It can look, said Bailey, “like a moment of forgetfulness—or cognitive decline when it leads to a nonsensical-sounding sentence.” Bailey concludes with “what to the untrained eye looks like evidence of cognitive decline might not be.” Yet Trump and some journalists are making the case that such moments are evidence of Biden’s cognitive decline. Biden cannot let that false narrative continue.
Trump’s already vicious advertising makes Biden appear out of touch, with cognitive difficulties, while it reminds voters about his age. This remains Trump’s best chance to cast an unflattering light on Biden and make him appear unworthy of the presidency.
Biden has an opportunity to put an end to any questions about his mental capacity and cognitive capabilities by publicly acknowledging that he still occasionally stutters. Otherwise, questions about his cognitive abilities will continue to come at him from Trump and the media.
Trump’s last chance to take Biden down will be the three debates. If voters are aware that Biden may stutter in one or more of his answers in these debates, the American people will understand that he may have occasional difficulties with some words and phrases and not view Biden’s stuttering as evidence of cognitive decline. They will also think more highly of Biden for having the courage to be on that stage.
If Biden deals with this now, on his terms, and tells his personal story about occasional stuttering, Americans would see yet another aspect of Biden’s inner strength. And if Trump is then left to defend his record instead of succeeding in falsely portraying Biden as too old, cognitively challenged and unfit to be president, then Joe Biden is likely to be the next president.