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Stop Telling Joe Biden What to Do

Biden's decision to pull negative ads while Trump is in the hospital was both good form and smart politics.
October 5, 2020
Stop Telling Joe Biden What to Do

Ever since Joe Biden won his party’s nomination (and before, in fact), the good folks on Twitter dot com and cable news and in the New York Times op-Ed section have been helpfully providing free advice to his campaign.

Joe Biden needs to get out of his basement! Joe Biden needs to do more to appeal to young people! Biden shouldn’t debate! Biden should do more to counter Trump’s convention! He’s pandering too much to the Left! He’s pandering too much to the Right! Joe Biden needs to more forcefully condemn the riots! (Yeah, that last one is mine.)

Now some of this is fine advice and some of it isn’t. But one of the central features of Joe Biden’s campaign is the extent to which it ignores the Twitter feedback loop. To its great credit, the Biden campaign does not lurch to satisfy the needs of the very online.

And it’s worked out pretty well. Biden has maintained a historically stable lead of between 5 and 9 points for the past seven months, while maintaining a clear vision of why he was running and what his message is.

But despite the consistent good sense demonstrated by Biden’s campaign, outside observers are always on the edge of believing that Biden is about to blow the whole thing!

And now, even as the president of the United States tested positive for COVID, was admitted to the hospital, and saw his administration melt down in a hurricane of lies and infighting, some people are calling for Biden to reverse his decision to pull the campaign’s negative ads. Because he’s about to blow the whole thing! Again!

From McClatchy:

An increasing number of Democrats are vocally urging Joe Biden’s campaign to resume running negative ads against Donald Trump, arguing that their party’s nominee should not relent even as the president remains hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus.

With Election Day less than a month away and early voting already in progress in key battleground states, some Democratic operatives said Biden must push forward with the messaging that has helped provide him with a stable lead in the presidential race, especially as the Trump campaign has continued to air attack ads.

There are a few things to understand here. For starters, Biden isn’t pulling all his ads or even reducing his spending. He’s just taking down the negative ads about Trump and presumably replacing them with ads that make the affirmative case for why he should be president.

This is the opposite of “relenting.” It’s actually very smart. Three reasons:

(1) Fast-forward to the closing argument. Based on the hundreds of hours of focus groups I’ve done with Trump voters who rate the president as doing “a very bad job,” they are clear-eyed about Trump’s many deficiencies. They know why they shouldn’t vote for Trump. What they want to understand in order to make the switch is why they should vote for Biden. Despite his decades in Washington, Biden remains undefined for many voters. Putting more emphasis on helping voters understand why they should vote for him is the best way to make his closing argument to the remaining universe of undecideds.

(2) Joe is the White Hat. Pulling negative ads gives Biden buckets of positive earned media that help to cement what has been the central tenet of the campaign from the beginning: That Joe Biden is the good guy in the race.

One of Biden’s secret weapons going into the election are his favorable/unfavorable numbers, which are head and shoulders above Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. According to a recent WSJ/NBC Poll, Biden is net +2 on fav/unfav, while Donald Trump is net -16.

Now, Donald Trump’s favorable numbers have been stuck in the mid-to-low 40s his entire presidency.

But Biden has actually been improving his numbers since winter—even as Trump has dumped hundreds of millions of dollars in nuclear negative advertising on his head.

And in just about every race, the candidate people like more is the candidate who wins.

(3) Non-state actors can still hammer Trump. There are hundreds of special interest groups (full disclosure: including my own group, Republican Voters Against Trump) which are perfectly willing to go after Trump’s record and behavior, hammer and tongs.

For people who already hate a candidate, there is an emotional payoff from seeing an ad that completely roasts the guy. That’s why it’s almost always the negative ads that go viral on social media. The people who already hate Donald Trump get an endorphin hit when they smash the share button.

And from the standpoint of simple election mechanics, there’s a real value in negative ads. When done well, they can measurably drive up negatives on your opponent. (There’s a reason campaigns historically do so much negative advertising: Because it works.)

But Trump’s negatives are already very high! And just watching the news is basically a negative Trump ad these days, given the state of reality. For Biden to have a shot at the landslide victory he’s aiming for, he needs to win over the people who already dislike Trump, but aren’t yet sold on Biden.

So a classy move—like pulling your negative ads while your opponent is in the hospital with a life-threatening disease—absolutely could help make people like you more. As could Biden’s positive, closing argument ads themselves. Especially since his positives are already heading North and the public already likes him more than the other guy by a huge margin.

So once again Joe Biden is right and the strategists who want to turn him into something he’s not are wrong.

If you’re a Biden supporter, be proud that he’s taking the high road. It’s the right choice both morally and strategically.

And also: It’s nice to be reminded that sociopaths with narcissistic personality disorders aren’t the only ones who get to run for president.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.