The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
May 31, 2020

Originally published in the Sunday Independent – May 31st 2020

As the terrible US toll of Covid-19 rises, older voters could play a key role in deciding the next president, writes Lorcan Nyhan

The US death toll from Covid-19 has hit 100,000. A staggering figure. A figure larger than the American fatalities in the Vietnam, Korean and Iraq wars, combined. A figure that shouldn’t become acceptable through met expectations or familiarity.

And it’s a figure that, despite the president’s best propaganda efforts, has started to weaken the Republican party’s decades-long advantage with older voters. The question now is, can the Democrats and Joe Biden turn this current temporary weakness into a long-term trend?

In 1930, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was running to be governor of New York. His Republican opponent, Charles Tuttle, was running on a platform of opposition to the rampant corruption in Tammany Hall, the Irish American-run cabal that dominated New York politics. Having opposed them early in his career, the pragmatic FDR had long since decided he couldn’t progress as a Democrat without their support so he was now deeply embedded with the Tammany machine – meaning he couldn’t credibly respond to the Republican attacks. So he didn’t. He instead ran a proactive campaign fighting for farm relief and full employment.

Resisting pressure to refute attacks and negate the Republican message, he told his adviser, Sam Rosenman: “Never let your opponent pick the battleground on which to fight – if he picks one, stay out of it and let him fight all by himself.” FDR won the election with the largest plurality in New York electoral history.

For four years, the Democrats have failed to follow their most successful political campaigner’s advice. Since 2016, Donald Trump has constantly and consistently picked the battleground. He’s dominated the narrative. He’s set the agenda. Whether it be the building of the wall, Hunter Biden’s relationship with a Ukrainian oil company or blaming China for the devastating impact of Covid-19, the president has picked the ground and the Democrats have rushed to join him.

This has been a colossal mistake. Following Trump down his self-created rabbit holes plays to his strengths. Joe Biden needs to pick his own battleground, and bait Trump into joining him there.

Up until a few months ago there was some debate as to what that field should be – but no longer. It’s very simple now – at least it is from a political campaigning perspective.

Donald Trump’s incompetence contributed to the deaths of thousands of Americans and killed the Obama economy – regardless of the shape of the recovery. Trump’s America has sacrificed thousands of the most vulnerable on the altar of the economy due to a combination of his incompetence, his envy of Barack Obama and his fear of losing.

That needs to be the constant focus of every Democrat. For the next six months they must make him deny it, make him justify it, make him answer on it. Recent history suggests that Trump will be allowed to turn the page on any of his failings and decisions – this can’t be permitted. The Democratic party, as a whole, can’t afford to get waylaid by every new Republican distraction.

A strategy that focuses on Trump’s Covid failings and the reasons behind them is one that will motivate the Democratic base – anger being a powerful motivator, that can be replicated in every swing state and, most promisingly, is one that has already started to bear fruit – impacting Trump’s support among a key demographic; the over-65s.

In 2016, the US president won voters over the age of 65 by seven percentage points. Now Biden leads Trump 48pc to 47pc with that cohort – a figure based on an average of 48 national polls by the polling site FiveThirtyEight. The New York Times has reported that internal Republican polling has shown the same change.

This is a massive shift: no Democrat has won this cohort since Al Gore in 2000. If the shift holds until polling starts, Biden would be in an incredibly strong electoral position.

Even if the strategy worked only in Florida, the state with the second oldest population – that would be half the job done. If Biden flipped this swing state, he would take away Trump’s most realistic path to electoral college success. A late April poll had Biden leading Trump 52pc to 42pc among voters 65 and older in Florida.

A concerted campaign to turn this current dip into a cemented trend is a must. The immediate anger at the crisis will subside, the deaths will turn from tragedies to statistics. People will forget.

Democrats need to use the current attention on Trump’s decisions and make sure that over-65s are left with the linked perception that he was callous and uncaring with their lives. He prioritised his re-election over their survival. They must turn the president’s short-term adversity into a lasting negative perception.

Trump’s campaign has already reacted to the initial loss of this support. Last Tuesday he announced a major initiative to cap insulin prices at $35, aimed purely at this demographic – claiming that “This is a big day for seniors”.

The president is worried. His campaign is worried. And you can see that most clearly via his consistent attacks on postal ballots. Trump has made efforts to oppose Democratic initiatives to make postal ballots more widely available, a move designed to aid voting during coronavirus. He’s done all he can to mislead the public about the integrity of postal voting; falsely claiming it will lead to “total election fraud” while threatening to withhold federal funding to states which continue to pursue widening postal ballots.

This is the most consequential fight in the election – because a depressed turnout means a Trump victory.

Twitter’s decision last week to finally flag two of Trump’s postal ballot claims as “unsubstantiated” is further evidence of this importance. Of all the mud that has been slung, this is the issue that their CEO Jack Dorsey finally felt they had to move on. Even if nothing but an outright ban would impact Trump’s support at this point – it’s still a welcome step from the social media platform largely responsible for Trump’s success. A new norm has been created, one that might inhibit the rise of the next populist pretender.

The focus on postal ballots makes sense from Trump’s tunnelled perspective. If it works, it will affect the Democratic vote, if it doesn’t, it will allow him to cry deceit, theft and corruption if he happens to lose in November.

Even if Joe Biden is successful in November, Trump would still be president for two-and-a-half months – he won’t go quietly into the night. Regardless, we haven’t seen the last of the Donald and his imagined dynasty.

The question that remains is: will he be a triumphant two-term victor or a bitter former president – plotting an unlikely 2024 return?

The answer depends on the battlegrounds the Democrats choose to fight on.

Lorcan Nyhan is head of training at the Communications Clinic