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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: No, Democracy is *Not* on the Ballot

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

What is the Biden campaign’s theory of the case? They have persistently been running behind Trump for months and most forecasting models currently tip Trump to win the election. A just-released New York Times/Siena poll has Biden behind by 6 points among registered voters and 3 points among likely voters. How are they planning on turning the election in their favor in the coming months?

Naturally, the Biden campaign will seek to put a number of messages into play where they feel they have an advantage. But numerous reports indicate that, above all, they believe emphasizing threats to democracy will the key to victory. Mike Donilon, probably Biden’s closest and most influential advisor, has said that by election day this year:

…the focus will become overwhelming on democracy. I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of January 6th.

Axios quotes Biden advisors as saying:

This is Joe Biden’s strategy — and Mike Donilon and his top advisers are in agreement with the president. The polling shows that democracy ended up a top issue of concern for voters in 2022, and it will be in 2024.

Izzat so? There are grounds for, to put it gently, considerable skepticism here. Let’s take a look at the data.

1. To begin with, preserving/defending/whatever democracy persistently trails the economy/inflation as the issue voters think is most important, even when the democracy issue is specifically mentioned as part of a list.

2. And when respondents’ most important issue is solicited in an open-ended format, where respondents give an unprompted, top-of-mind answer, democracy simply does not rate very high. In the most recent Gallup poll, only 4 percent fall into a bucket they term “elections/election reform/democracy.” This vastly trails key economic problems, immigration, etc.

3. Even more recently, the new New York Times/Siena poll finds just 5 percent of voters (3 percent of working-class voters) saying “the state of democracy/corruption” will be the most important issue in deciding on their November vote, again substantially trailing the same set of issues. In an interesting followup, the poll asked voters who they thought could do a better job of handling whatever issue they designated as most important. By 14 points (24 points among the working class), voters thought Trump could do a better job than Biden of handling that issue.

4. Further undercutting the Biden campaign theory, an earlier New York Times poll asked voters what was the one thing they remembered most from Trump’s presidency; that most definitely was not January 6th. Just 5 percent mentioned it, again dwarfed by other events and trends.

5. And, as John Sides has pointed out, Biden’s victory over Trump in 2020 was not attributable to running on democracy or anything like that. Campaign messages and advertisements focused instead on the economy, the pandemic, health care and other less abstract issues. If there was a broader theme, it was a return to normalcy not saving democracy.

6. So, democracy does not appear to be the mega-salient issue the Biden campaign is envisioning. What makes the apparent drive to center the issue in the Biden campaign even less understandable is that the issue, as an issue, does not even cut very much in Biden’s direction unlike, say, abortion rights or health care. This is because preserving/defending democracy means different things to different voters; many voters don’t see the choice between Biden and Trump on the issue as blindingly obvious. They don’t, as the Democratic faithful would have it, believe Biden = democracy and Trump = fascism. Many see Trump as their paladin and view Biden and the Democrats as privileging the interests and preferences of their supporters, especially educated elites, in a distinctly non-democratic way.

7. That explains why Biden is not typically preferred by much over Trump on democracy and related issues. One of the most favorable results is in the latest Fox News poll where Biden is preferred over Trump by a modest 6 points on “the future of American democracy.” Even here, Trump gets the nod over Biden by 4 points among working class voters.

8. And there are many results that aren’t nearly so favorable. A March Wall Street Journal poll of battleground states had Biden ahead by just a point on “protecting democracy.” Similarly, over two waves of Democracy Corps’ battleground surveys, Biden and the Democrats were favored over Trump and the Republicans by an average of only 3.5 points on “presidents not being able to act as autocrats,” by 2.5 points on “democracy being secure,” and by 2 points on “protecting democracy” (first wave only). And Trump and the Republicans were favored over Biden and the Democrats by 1.5 points on “opposing extremism” (!) and by 5 points on “protecting the US constitution” (!!). All this hardly makes the democracy issue seem like a slam-dunk for the Biden campaign.

9. Even more devastating, a massive (3,500 registered voters) Washington Post/George Mason Schar School April-May survey of the battleground states found Trump favored over Biden by 11 points on who could do a better job handling “threats to democracy in the US.” And among a group of voters the survey dubbed “the Deciders,” more peripheral voters who will surge into the voting pool in 2024 and likely decide the election, Trump is favored by 9 points over Biden to safeguard democracy.

10. Looking over these data, one must conclude that the Biden campaign plan is to somehow dramatically raise the salience of democracy and January 6th among ordinary voters in coming months and simultaneously generate a robust advantage on the issue among these same voters. This is not impossible but it does not really seem advisable; a little like drawing to an inside straight in poker. You might make it but you probably won’t.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Biden and his campaign are unduly influenced by what they believe should be true rather than what is true. They see Trump as an unspeakably evil man who is an existential threat to democracy and can’t imagine why that view wouldn’t be everybody’s and drive their vote inexorably toward Biden. But it isn’t and the sooner they realize that, the better their chances of actually beating the Bad Orange Man.

That means dropping the absurd Hitler/end of the Weimar Republic analogies and developing a more realistic model of the situation they’re in. David Leonhardt provides some helpful observations along these lines:

I’m reminded of the arguments of Luigi Zingales, an economist at the University of Chicago. Zingales grew up in Italy, where a bombastic right-wing populist—Silvio Berlusconi—presaged Trump by becoming prime minister in 1994 and holding the job on and off for years…Shortly after Trump’s 2016 victory, Zingales wrote an Opinion essay in The Times outlining the political strategies that tend to fail when opposing a figure like Trump.

Berlusconi’s least-effective opponents focused on his personality and argued that he was beyond the pale of acceptable politics. This criticism made many Italian voters like him even more. They reasoned that if the elites who had done such a poor job running the country hated Berlusconi, maybe he was the solution after all.

Berlusconi’s most effective opponents, by contrast, treated him like an ordinary politician who would not improve their lives. “They focused on the issues, not on his character,” Zingales wrote.

Biden’s campaign sometimes makes arguments along these lines….So far, though, these messages tend to be less prominent than the arguments about democracy and the soul of America.

Just so. The Biden campaign desperately needs a new theory of the case. Otherwise, they really will be drawing to an inside straight and we could all suffer the consequences.

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