The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
March 13, 2020

First published in the Sunday Independent on March 8th

Joe Biden is now the frontrunner to take the US Democratic Party’s nomination to run against Donald Trump later this year. And he’s a strong contender for the White House. But he must be ready to counter the voter suppression tactics that derailed the party in 2016.

His performance last week on Super Tuesday – winning 10 out of 14 states, taking Massachusetts and Texas against the odds, and increasing the turnout of his strongest demographics – has given him phenomenal momentum.

Although the race with Bernie Sanders isn’t over, he is now the likely winner. He has proven his significant support among older and black voters is resilient. He’s shown he can energise those voters to turn out in numbers. And he’s secured the support of almost every high profile, moderate Democrat. He is, however, not a flawless candidate. And Trump knows that.

We already know what a Trump-Biden election campaign will look like. Any modern political campaign has a series of communication objectives loosely grouped into three areas – boosting the turnout of your base, converting wavering swing voters and depressing the turnout of your opponents’ supporters.

We are already familiar with the Trump approach to the latter. They’ll be dusting off the 2016 playbook to deploy the exact same voter suppression tactics used successfully against Hillary Clinton.

Four years ago Trump’s campaign had a clear strategy. They did everything they could to ensure that certain segments of the Democratic base, black voters, white woman and young liberals, didn’t turn out for Clinton as they had for Obama in 2012.

It worked. By targeting Clinton on areas such as alleged corruption, her capacity for the role of president and her past comments about minority groups, they suppressed turnout among key voter groups in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina. Contributing strongly towards Trump’s victories there, it led to his overall electoral college victory.

Trump will seek to replicate these attacks on Biden because, to win, he needs a certain cohort of potential Democratic voters to look at the ballot paper and think “why bother voting – they’re all the same”.

If Biden is nominated, Democrats can predict the Republican strategy: attack Biden on perceived corruption, capacity for the role, and his historic record and comments about key minority groups. All designed not to convert voters to Trump, but to win the turnout war.

None of this is guesswork. It’s already started. Trump and the Republicans have invested significant time embroiling Biden in an alleged corruption scandal focusing on his son’s role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company.

No evidence has been found of any wrongdoing by either Biden. Yet Trump declared live on Fox News last Wednesday that Biden Junior “will be a major issue in the campaign – I will bring that up all the time”.

They did the same to Clinton in 2016. Trump used the term “crooked Hillary” in six out of 10 of his most retweeted tweets and allegations of corruption in the Clinton Foundation and controversy around deleted emails dominated the 2016 campaign.

Another constant trope from Trump was that Clinton didn’t have the “stamina” to be president. Trump surrogates like Rudy Guiliani were baldly feeding baseless far-right conspiracy theories of a hidden medical condition by directing people to search for “Hillary Clinton Illness” on Google.

In the aftermath of Super Tuesday, Giuliani posted a video of Biden mistaking his sister for his wife behind him, saying “It is obvious this man is cognitively impaired.”

Is this point gaining traction? Of course it is. Trump picked up the thread at a campaign town hall last Thursday – saying there was “something going on” with Biden in reference to verbal missteps he’s made while campaigning.

One of the most significant factors in Clinton’s loss was the drop in turnout among black voters in swing states. They turned out for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but not in 2016. This helped Trump bring traditional Democratic states to the Republican side.

Biden has strong backing from these voters. His comeback is being driven by them. Trump knows he’ll need to dent that support – and his campaign will use tried-and-tested means. In 2016, they targeted ads, directly quoting Clinton referring to some African American children as “super predators”, to black voters in swing states.

Biden also has a history of racial gaffes. Last summer at a campaign event he said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”, and his opposition to busing, an initiative to reduce racial segregation in schools in the 1970s, has already been exposed in the past year.

He was also one of the authors of the now controversial ‘Clinton Crime Bill’ in 1994 – a series of initiatives that some have linked to the increase of mass incarceration of minorities. His support among African Americans is a strength. White women will be important to both men in November. Trump won this demographic in 2016 but a recent Fox News poll suggests he will perform worse with female voters this time out.

Trump aimed to suppress Clinton’s vote with women by associating her with her husband’s past. In advance of the second presidential debate, he invited three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault or harassment to a live streamed press conference.

Likewise, one of his most direct attacks on Biden so far has been the sharing of a doctored version of a video where the former vice president was responding to allegations of his unwanted physical contact with women. Trump’s video includes a cut-out of Biden walking around in the background – at one point massaging his own shoulders.

All of these problems can be applied, more dramatically, to Trump himself. Which is part of the plan. Rather than trying to change the minds of certain voters about his worst traits, he’s making sure those traits are also associated with his opponent. The goal isn’t conversion or persuasion; it’s apathy or ennui.

Countering these attacks isn’t easy. Particularly given not all of them are unsubstantiated. And much of it is outside of Biden’s control – he will be relying on voters seeing him as more trustworthy and authentic than Clinton.

But his choice of running mate could blunt the effectiveness of these voter suppressing attempts. In 2016, Tim Kaine didn’t help Clinton address any of the weaknesses Trump subsequently exploited. Kaine was a moderate Democrat who doubled down on existing Clinton strengths. In hindsight, he was a mistake.

If Biden wins, he must pick a running mate who widens his appeal and provides an energetic, progressive presence. Stacey Abrams, who almost became a Democratic governor in the strongly Republican Georgia, or Kamala Harris, the senator and former candidate who took Biden to task on his opposition to busing, would be strong picks. Both would attract progressive voters and act as a firewall against losses of support among African American or female voters.

For now, all indicators point to Biden being the Democratic nominee. Trump’s strategy will be similar to four years ago. What remains to be seen is how Biden defends himself against the president’s obvious plays. Seeing missiles coming doesn’t mean you can survive their impact.