There seems to be an untold story of a strategic decision helped by a little bit of luck, that propelled Biden to the Whitehouse. For all the credit and blame both campaigns got, there was one campaign gamble the Biden Campaign took that ended up paying off big.
He did What?
"Joe Biden and Democrats are leaning in on health care messaging with less than 50 days to go until the election. This morning, Biden's campaign unveiled two new ads as part of what his team said would be a $65 million ad buy this week across multiple platforms."
- CBS News, September 16th, 2020
Maybe it wasn't a gamble, maybe it was calculated, and yeah, probably it was due to a $365 million dollar fundraising haul which definitely allows a candidate to take a chance. No matter which one it was, as a longtime political consultant and pollster, I just remember being very intrigued at the time, and asking the question, with Trump gaining steam in what is now a tossup election, why would you roll out healthcare ads when it's not one of the issues voters care most about?
Now, a quick note for context, before I dive in further. The Trump campaign started the year, and the summer, trailing Biden across the country. While the polling was closer in key swing states, most pollsters like myself had Trump losing to Biden no matter how you looked at it. However, as the shutdowns dragged on, and went from short term to no immediate end in sight, voters started getting stir crazy. The Trump campaign did a great job of seizing upon voters concerns over the prolonged shutdowns and his law and order message had resonated over the summer as some protests turned violent. The main driver of most poll numbers was voter fears over the virus diminishing and many eager to move on with their every day lives. Each summer month saw Trump's poll numbers rise, and heading into September with the school year approaching, Trump had made the election a true toss up again.
“ Joe Biden, however, is fully capable of losing enough states to lose the election in the Electoral College. If the last three weeks are any indication, he’s well on his way to doing just that. You can feel the change in the press coverage. The tone of the commentary and analysis has gone from up-tempo to downbeat. “Biden’s doing well” has been replaced by “Biden’s in trouble.”
Boston Globe, September 1, 2020
Regardless of whether you think Trump was winning or losing at this point, one thing that can be universally agreed upon was that Trump spent the entire summer gaining on Biden. Even CNN had to admit "Joe Biden's lead over Donald Trump among registered voters has significantly narrowed since June." Donald Trump was winning the summer election. Voters were frustrated, Trump was gaining, and, has the election been held on September 1st, Trump certainly could have won an election.
It's Always the Economy
“With the country in the midst of a recession, nearly eight-in-ten registered voters (79%) say the economy will be very important to them in making their decision about who to vote for in the 2020 presidential election – the top issue of 12 included in the survey. The economy is consistently a top voting issue. In a survey asking a similar, though not identical, list of issues in June 2016, the economy also was the top voting issue.”
Pew Research Center, August 13th, 2020
Every single election the economy is always at the forefront of voters minds. The economy often propels winners to victory and sends high profile politicians back to their days jobs. If the economy is doing well ahead of ballots being cast, incumbents are more likely to win, whether they had anything to do with it or not. If it's struggling, an economic downturn becomes the one thing every challenger can immediately latch onto, regardless of whose fault it is. Most importantly, it's always, or almost always, the number one issue on voters minds, and despite the coronavirus, it appeared to be that way again by the end of the summer heading into the homestretch of the election. Who did voters trust on the number one issue?
“Among registered voters, the Republican Party holds a 9 percentage point edge over the Democrats on the issue of being better able to handle the economy (49% Republican Party, 40% Democratic Party). And as has been the case for many years, more voters say the GOP could do a better job than the Democratic Party on terrorism (46% vs. 37%).”
-Pew Research Center, August 13th, 2020
We also saw that despite concerns over the pandemic, shutdowns, and a troubled economy, voters still trusted Trump over Biden on the economy, in what was likely to be the main driver over the final two months of the election (again, as it almost always is).
"Trump, meanwhile, leads with voters on far fewer issues in the poll, but his main strength, how to handle the economy, is usually a big driver at election time."
-NBC News, August 16th, 2020
So there you have it, Trump had closed the gap, voters trusted him more than Biden on the number one election issue, and the timing for Trump was perfect heading into September. Voters don't typically begin to lock in their votes until after Labor Day as they generally are concerned with vacations and kids being out of school over the summer, and don't pay nearly as much attention to politics until they get back into a daily routine. You'd think given his diminishing lead, Biden would transition to the economy and try to take Trump head on.
Before we get into what both campaigns actually did, let me remind you one more time what just about every campaign ever in the history of time would do. They'd shift towards the economy, especially in September. Heading into Labor Day in 2008, McCain looked solid. From there on, Obama stormed, and like many elections, he had an economic to thank for that. In 2004, Bush improved in his re-election campaign as the economy was getting better after September 11th. Voters didn't blame him for the collapse, they gave him credit for the rise. It was almost eerily similar to what voters were saying now. So, with Labor Day approaching in 2020, what did each campaign decide to do?
“On the day he is slated to accept his party’s nomination for President of the United States, Joe Biden’s campaign is rolling out a new television ad on Thursday hammering President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and extolling the former vice president’s leadership in times of crisis.”
-NBC News August 20th, 2020
That's right! With his lead diminishing, and his opponent picking up steam, Joe Biden could have used his convention to roll out an economic recovery plan and attempt to compete with Trump on voter's most important issue. But. He. Didn't. Instead, he doubled down on healthcare and the coronavirus, and continued the campaign's core theme of questioning Trump's leadership during the pandemic. Then, in September at the height of Trump's momentum, The Biden campaign made a record $65 million dollar ad buy about....healthcare.
Many Democrats questioned it at the time and so did a lot of armchair quarterbacks like myself. I mean, just two days before this massive ad buy announcement a "Newsweek/Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll found that 33 percent of registered voters believed the economy was the issue most likely to decide how they would vote" the same day The Trump campaign went the conventional route and "return(ed) to economy with 8-figure ad buy, call(ing) it ‘defining issue in this race." Why spend on healthcare when the economy is the number one issue, your opponent leads on that issue, and he about to spend big to remind voters of that? Trump was the one with the momentum in a toss up race.
I should point out that it's not like the Biden campaign ignored the economy, it just wasn't their entire focus. They chose to attack it in another way, which was questioning Trump's leadership through the pandemic. Before I had a blog, I'd simply post my thoughts on Facebook at the time, and here's what I wrote while posting the article about the ad buy on that day.
“Interesting strategy from the Biden campaign here. The economy is always the number one issue for voters in every single election ever. If Biden is going to win, he's going to have to have to convince voters that their number two issue is actually number one.”
-Me, September 16th, 2020
Here's why I'd say such a thing, and why the Biden campaign probably took the strategy they did. Let's go back to that the Pew Research Center poll from August, which listed 12 issues on their survey. Although the economy was the most important, over two thirds of respondents also listed healthcare (68%) along with other issues like Supreme Court Appointments (64%) and the coronavirus outbreak (62%).
“likely voters say they prefer Trump over Biden to handle the economy, 50% to 46%. That's partially why the president's campaign is focusing a new round of fall advertising on the economy…..Overall, the economy (21%) is seen as the No. 1 issue for likely voters, followed by the coronavirus (13%), climate change (12%), health care (8%) and race relations (7%)
NPR News – September 19th, 2020.
You'll notice, according to the poll NPR cited above, that the economy was still the top issue in September, and that voters still trusted Trump over Biden on the economy. However the next four issues all favored Joe Biden. Biden also led Trump by a wider margin with those four issues than Trump led Biden on the economy. Remember that Newsweek poll I mentioned earlier? It also seemed to have the same conclusion.
“"When asked if they thought Trump would be able to get the economy going again, half of all respondents told pollsters they thought he could. By comparison, only 44 percent of voters said they believed Biden could revive the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crash earlier this year... But on the question of who they most trusted to get the virus under control, voters strongly favored the former vice president."
Newsweek – September 18th, 2020.”
So what we had here was Trump leading with voters on the most important issue, the economy, but only by single digits. Meanwhile, we had voters trusting Biden on healthcare and the coronavirus by more than they trusted Trump on the economy. Biden chose not to compete with Trump directly on the economy like most thought he should. Instead, he decided to promote the issues he polled best on in an attempt to change the focus of the election. He hammered down on healthcare and sprinkled his money around reminding voters about that other issues were at stake in the election. His argument was simple: The economy couldn't recover until American dealt with the virus and its healthcare issue.
Did it Work or Did Biden Get Some Help?
“Wall Street’s main indexes slumped on Friday after Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.
Rueters, October 6th, 2020
Yes, the Biden gamble paid off, and yes, they got some help from Trump, and from the economy. The Biden campaign deserves credit for not straying from their central message and executing their plan. It's just hard to believe they didn't get a lift from Trump's covid diagnosis. For months Trump had mocked masks, even making fun of Biden during their first debate. Now the President had covid himself, and it only reinforced the Biden argument that the virus needed to be dealt with in order for the economy to recover.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sunday showed Trump trailing Biden nationally by 10 percentage points. About 65% of Americans said Trump would not have been infected had he taken the virus more seriously....Before falling ill, he tried to pivot the campaign toward the U.S. economic recovery and the upcoming confirmation hearings for his Supreme Court nominee....But the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the White House as well as in Congress threatens to draw further attention to Trump’s pandemic response..”
- Rueters, October 6th, 2020
You'll notice that last sentence citing "Trump's pandemic response." When asked how they felt upon hearing Trump's diagnosis in a Politico poll, the top response from voters was "worried" and the second highest response was "nervous." Furthermore, the response from Republicans was even higher, with nearly a third of respondents answering either "surprised," "worried," or "upset." Trump's diagnosis scared a lot of people and underscored his main winning issue, which was moving the economy forward.
“When asked about the tradeoff between containing the coronavirus and rebuilding the economy, 52% of voters believed controlling the pandemic, even if it hurts the economy, was more important..”
-CNBC Exit Polling, November 3rd, 2020
Now, I'm not saying Biden wouldn't have won without help from Trump, but I am saying that's Trump's diagnosis couldn't have aided their main strategy any better. Trump made is an easy choice for voters on who to trust when it came to handling the pandemic and voters were pushed to prioritizing containing the virus over rebuilding the economy.
Credit Given Where Credit Due
“The economic populism that fueled Trump’s meteoric rise to the presidency is all but gone this time around. His speeches contain barely any mention of the issues that won over voters in 2016. Instead, Trump’s closing argument this year amounts to a laundry list of his personal grievances against government agencies, courts, voting laws, individual journalists and TV hosts, pollsters, tech companies, medical experts and so on.
The former vice president’s final day of campaigning included stops in Ohio and then Pennsylvania, where he delivered a message that has changed very little in the past three months. The central point of Biden’s 11th-hour pitch to voters remains that Trump has not and will not take the necessary steps to control the coronavirus pandemic”
-CNBC Exit Polling, November 3rd, 2020
Trump made is an easy choice for voters on who to trust when it came to handling the pandemic. He also lost his ability to shift from controlling the virus to moving the economy forward. By the end of the campaign, Trump finally tried to address healthcare, talk more about the virus, and stray from his economic recovery message. Meanwhile Biden simply stuck with his. Trump's efforts were simply too little and too late.
Donald Trump lost Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin by less than one point each. If he had won those three, he'd be sitting at 269 electoral votes and Biden would be sitting at 269 electoral votes as well. In may be hindsight, but one can certainly wonder whether Trump could have closed those gaps had he not caught covid, or just as important, had Biden not chose the right campaign message to tackle Trump on.
Biden didn't have to win big, he just had to win. Give his campaign some credit. They won, electorally speaking, by the skin of their teeth. They never took the bait from Trump, and executed their game plan to the very end.