Call it a case of feeling like you’re doomed to repeat history unless you learn from history. In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran what was described as a “top-down, high-level messaging” campaign. The strategy was light on retail politics and local appearances, but heavy on using national media appearances and a broad-themed appeal in national advertising. In short, Hillary ran a textbook national campaign, which makes sense in some respect, since the presidency is a national office. In contrast, Donald Trump ran a campaign with a national footprint yet tailored to issues in the states he needed to win. For example, spending a lot of time on the ground and a lot of time with targeted get out to vote efforts in swing states like Pennsylvania.
Some Democratic operatives and various officials are now expressing a similar level of concern over the campaign of Joe Biden. According to reports, some state-level party leaders are worried that the mistakes of Democrats in 2016 are being repeated by Democrats in 2020.
More specifically, Biden supporters in Michigan are worried about the lack of basic things, such as campaign field offices around the state:
The Biden campaign in Michigan refused to confirm the location of any physical field offices despite repeated requests; they say they have “supply centers” for handing out signs, but would not confirm those locations. The campaign also declined to say how many of their Michigan staff were physically located here.
But after conversations with more than a dozen Democratic Members of Congress, state representatives, local party chairs and party operatives, a slightly more anxious picture emerged. Top Democrats believe the race is closer than the polls suggest, and some are privately urging the Biden campaign and state Democrats to reconsider physical canvassing. “I think Biden could absolutely do more,” says Michael Heitman, chair of the Democratic Party in Isabella County, a small county in central Michigan which voted for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump in 2016. “I’d really appreciate if the Biden campaign had someone specifically for his campaign here.”
Some top Democrats say that the visibility of Biden campaigning in Michigan is as important as the campaign itself. “I think we need a more visible Biden campaign presence in the state, that is soup to nuts: from yard signs to surrogates to visits,” says U.S. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, who represents Michigan’s 8th District. “I would love to see a steady drumbeat that made clear, even to the most apolitical person, that Joe Biden cares about Michigan, and he has plan.”
It’s easy, and perhaps convenient, to rely on the belief that Biden will carry Michigan, so why bother spending time there? That sentiment among Clinton campaign officials cost her the state, along with others like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Another voice in the mix also jumped on the fear bandwagon to express concern about the focus of Biden’s campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders said he believes Biden can win in November but is also concerned that he could still lose quite easily:
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who left the primary race in the spring and has worked to shift Biden to the left on key issues, has made the warnings in public and private in recent days. Most recently, he went on MSNBC on Sunday to express concerns that Biden wasn’t speaking up enough about his economic proposals.
“I think Biden’s in an excellent position to win this election, but I think we have got to do more as a campaign than just go after Trump,” he said. “We also have to give people a reason to vote for Joe Biden. And Joe has some pretty strong positions on the economy, and I think we should be talking about that more than we have.”
In a Friday interview with PBS, Sanders was more blunt: “Am I here to tell you absolutely, this is a slam dunk, no chance that he will lose? That is not what I’m saying,” the Vermont senator said.
It could be said that Sanders is hedging his bets to avoid the appearance that his brand of democratic-socialism would be rejected at the ballot box if Biden loses. “See,” Sanders can say, “I told Biden he needed to focus on the issues voters care about, I tried to warn him.”
There is one piece of advice that Sanders knows something about, however, which is an area where Biden appears to be exposed:
He [Sanders] also encouraged Biden to focus more on Latino and young voters, groups that broadly supported Sanders during the primary. Biden has struggled to build enthusiasm among young voters, and some Democrats have expressed concerns about what they see as the campaign’s lack of outreach to Latino voters, which Sanders echoed on MSNBC.
Sanders connected with young and minority voters for a variety of reasons whereas Biden is struggling in this area, and it’s showing up in the polls:
An NBC News/Marist poll out last week on Florida voters found Trump getting 50% support among Latinos in Florida, ahead of the former vice president’s 46% support, as Latinos of Cuban descent strongly backed the Republican incumbent.
If that trend continues and holds in other parts of the country outside the Cuban-American population in Florida, Biden will have serious problems on Election Day. Barack Obama, as a candidate, was the master at assembling the various Democratic Party coalitions. He did it in 2008 and 2012 despite losing the House of Representatives to Republicans in 2010.
Biden has tied some of his fortunes to Obama, but at this point, he’s been unable to make it fully translate for obvious reasons. Joe Biden is no Barack Obama, on the stump or by political pedigree.
Limiting campaign appearances and travel during the Coronavirus pandemic, especially for a man in his late seventies, is prudent. However, to push his party over the finish line in November toward victory may require more than Biden is able to offer.
It’s noteworthy that much of the concern and worry from local operatives or even Bernie Sanders seems to fly in the face of national polls showing Biden nine or ten points ahead. If you believe the polling data, then Biden is doing fine, right? Then again, Hillary Clinton was polling well in 2016 and it ended poorly for her by relying too much on the data and not enough on the ground game.
Issues like voter registration and local get out the vote operations are imperative in close races. Republicans, which often struggle in this, are making progress in the import Biden state of Pennsylvania:
President Donald Trump has trailed Joe Biden in virtually every poll in Pennsylvania this year.
But there’s a more tangible piece of data in the state that tells a different story: Since 2016, Republicans have netted nearly seven times as many registered voters here than Democrats.
The GOP has added almost 198,000 registered voters to the books compared to this time four years ago, whereas Democrats have gained an extra 29,000. Though Democrats still outnumber Republicans by about 750,000 voters in the state, the GOP has seized on their uptick in party members as a sign that Trump is on track to win this critical Rust Belt swing state a second time.
One side is crazy, and until November, we won’t know which one. Republicans feel like they’re lurking below the surface ready to come-from-behind and win similar to 2016 when pollsters and model-makers put Hillary Clinton in the White House. Democrats feel the opposite, that polls this time are more accurate, and President Trump is universally disliked to the point where Biden’s broad national campaign can win in 2020 where it failed for Hillary in 2020.
One of these views can’t be correct. It’s up to voters in November to decide which one is closer to reality.