Election 2020

Why the 'basement' strategy pays off for Joe Biden

Biden has physically left his basement and house to campaign but he and his team have been far more cautious than the Trump campaign in following health recommendations

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US PRESS GROUP

Joe Biden’s Republican opponents have gleefully mocked him for effectively hiding out in his basement rather than hitting the campaign trail over the past few months. But an uncomfortable truth is now setting in for Biden’s critics: his low-key approach to campaigning is paying off.

A swath of new polls have shown Biden leading Donald Trump handsomely in key battleground states and nationally. That’s despite Trump’s eagerness to hit the campaign trail and hold rallies as if the country weren’t in the middle of a national pandemic.

Biden has physically left his basement and house to campaign (on Thursday, for instance, he delivered remarks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) but he and his team have been far more cautious than the Trump campaign in following health recommendations. Mocking Biden and his “basement” strategy has become part of the larger strategy by Trump and his allies to frame the Democratic candidate as frail and afraid.

But that criticism hasn’t done much to boost Trump.

“Sometimes candidates have trouble getting out of their own way, and the president is a profound example of that,” said Jon-David Schlough, a Democratic strategist. Schlough described Trump as a “destabilizing force” and added: “I think Biden’s strategy is smart. He wants to be a steady hand to guide the country through multiple crises, in contrast to Trump’s recklessness.”

Biden and his team have also retained a robust fundraising schedule, with a number of upcoming virtual events featuring him as a headliner. The campaign has also recently been rolling out new appointees in battleground states and hired experienced strategists in Michigan to run the campaign there, according to multiple Democratic officials. (The campaign has not publicly announced those hires yet.) The campaign has also continued to roll out policy proposals and statements.

Meanwhile, Trump, over the past few weeks, has tried to resume normal campaigning. He held his first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic began last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Attendance for that rally fell short of the president’s expectations, but that hasn’t deterred Trump from holding more public events. He headlined a Students for Trump event in Arizona on Tuesday, and participated in a town hall hosted by Sean Hannity that was televised on Thursday night as he visited Wisconsin.

But Trump’s eagerness to campaign as usual hasn’t given him a notable boost in recent polling. If anything, Biden’s more cautious approach has cemented his lead. A New York Times/Siena College poll found the former vice-president leading Trump nationally, 50% to 36%.

The Biden campaign has been eager to tout national and state polls. In talking points to campaign surrogates, the campaign pointed to recent national polls showing him up, and state polls such as one from Marquette showing him leading Trump in Wisconsin, and an Ohio poll showing him leading Trump by one percentage point.

Another set of talking points included figures that show an “overwhelming majority oppose Trump’s efforts to gut Obamacare, and that a majority trust Joe more on the issue of healthcare”.

In statewide polling of six key battleground states, Biden, similarly, has significant leads over Trump. Many of the details of those statewide polls show that voters who are backing Biden are more inclined to do it to oppose Trump than because they support Biden.

“They certainly have the trends going their way,” Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, and a Biden supporter, said of the Democrat’s campaign. “Americans haven’t been this unhappy since 1970. I think 80% of the country is worried about the country. I mean, these are trends that are for new leadership.”

But Whaley pointed out that how either candidate has been campaigning may not be the deciding factor in this race right now. She pointed to recently polling showing a tight race in Ohio, despite heavy advertising by the Trump campaign and new serious staff presence by the Biden campaign.

Biden and his campaign have not indicated any plans to tweak their strategy to match Trump’s. Republicans, meanwhile, contend that as election day approaches and especially during the upcoming general election debates, Trump will regain the ground he’s lost.

Biden spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement: “Vice-President Biden and our campaign have been aggressively making the case to voters and laying out the clear contrast between the strong, steady, and compassionate leadership Biden would bring to the White House in a moment of crisis like this … and Donald Trump’s erratic and divisive behavior.”

He added: “Trump and his campaign have desperately thrown everything they can at Biden, but none of it’s sticking because voters know who Joe Biden is, and they know that Trump is responsible for the historic bungling of the coronavirus that’s left more than 122,000 Americans dead and another 20 million unemployed, and that Trump has spent every day in office dividing our country and inflaming racial tensions.”

The past few months, where Biden has closely followed medical officials’ guidelines on social distancing, have represented a tumultuous period in American politics.

Trump has struggled to handle protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody. His administration has also had to deal with a flailing economy and the continuing pandemic. Voters generally view Trump more favorably than Biden on the economy, according to most polling, but not on much else.

Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster, said that given recent events and the current polling, Biden’s lead may be a snapshot of the election in November.

“We’ll see if it holds, but in the past six weeks the country has moved dramatically to a judgment, and I’m beginning to wonder what Trump can do, or will do, to possibly turn it around,” Maslin said. “He’s talked about, ‘Well, we’ll have a roaring recovery.’ OK, well, where is it?”

Biden’s lead over Trump in state polls and national polls has looked steady for a while, said Eric Goldman, who ran Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign in 2018. That could still change, but it may not, he adds.

“A lot has to go right for him, including the momentum shifting back in his direction, and it’s not clear that that’s going to happen,” Goldman said. “It doesn’t seem they have any sort of solutions from a governance standpoint.”

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