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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can “Reverse Coattails” Help Biden Win?

A relatively new term is popping up in articles on 2024 strategy for Democrats that I explained and explored at New York:

When you have a presidential candidate who is struggling to generate enthusiasm in the party base, it’s natural to look for some external stimulation. In the case of Joe Biden, the most obvious source of a 2024 boost is the deep antipathy that nearly all Democrats, many independents, and even a sizable sliver of Republicans feel toward Donald Trump. But in case that’s not enough, Team Biden is looking at another avenue of opportunity, albeit a risky one: the possibility of “reverse coattails” taking him past Trump on a wave of turnout that incidentally benefits the president of the United States.

That’s not the conventional wisdom, as the term reverse coattails makes clear: Normally, it’s the head of the ticket from whom all blessings flow, which makes sense insofar as presidential-election turnout dwarfs that of off-year and midterm contests in no small part because people who don’t necessarily care about the identity of their senator or governor are galvanized by the battle for the White House. But as Russell Berman of The Atlantic explains, this year is different:

“Faith in the reverse-coattails effect is fueling Democratic investments in down-ballot races and referenda. In North Carolina, for example, party officials hope that a favorable matchup in the governor’s race — Democratic attorney general Josh Stein is facing Republican lieutenant governor Mark Robinson, who has referred to homosexuality as ‘filth’ and compared abortion to slavery — could help Biden carry a state that Trump narrowly won twice. Democrats are also trying to break a Republican supermajority in the legislature, where they are contesting nearly all 170 districts. ‘The bottom of the ticket is absolutely driving engagement and will for all levels of the ballot,’ Heather Williams, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me.”

In other states, high-profile ballot measures, particularly those aimed at restoring the abortion rights denied by conservative courts and Republican lawmakers, may generate bottoms-up enthusiasm benefiting Biden and embattled Democratic Senate candidates as well:

“In key states across the country, Democrats and their allies are planting ballot initiatives both to protect reproductive rights where they are under threat and to turn out voters in presidential and congressional battlegrounds. They’ve already placed an abortion measure on the ballot in Florida, where the state supreme court upheld one of the nation’s most restrictive bans on the procedure, and they plan to in Arizona, whose highest court recently ruled that the state could enforce an abortion ban first enacted during the Civil War. Democrats are also collecting signatures for abortion-rights measures in Montana, home to a marquee Senate race, and in Nevada, a presidential swing state that has a competitive Senate matchup this year.”

Berman notes that the reverse-coattails strategy is unproven. Voters, for example, who attracted to the polls by abortion ballot measures don’t always follow the partisan implications of their votes when it comes to candidate preferences. Red-hot down-ballot races are probably more reliable in attracting voters who can be expected to follow the party line to the top of the ticket. A positive precedent can be found in Georgia’s coordinated effort of 2020, when a powerful campaign infrastructure built by Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock clearly helped maximize Biden’s vote; the 46th president won the state by less than 12,000. Perhaps a strong Senate candidate like Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey could help Biden survive as well. As for the possible effect of ballot measures, it was once generally accepted that in 2004 a GOP strategy of encouraging anti-same-sex-marriage ballot measures helped boost conservative turnout in battleground states like Ohio, enabling George W. Bush’s narrow victory (though there are analysts who argue against that hypothesis). One reason it may work better today is the increasing prevalence of straight-ticket voting and the heavy emphasis of Democratic campaigns up and down the ballot on the kind of support for abortion rights that should help them take advantage of ballot-measure-generated turnout.

We won’t get a good idea of how either reverse-coattails strategy is working until late in the 2024 campaign when it becomes possible to measure new voter registrations, screen registered voters for their likelihood to participate in the election, and assess states where down-ballot contests are turning into a Democratic blowout. Team Biden would be wise to do everything in its power to lift the president’s popularity and build a favorability advantage over Trump that can reduce the number of “double haters” likely to stay home or vote for a change in the party management of Washington.

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