The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
September 14, 2020

Originally published in The Sunday Independent

In January 2003, Munster were on the brink of being knocked out of rugby’s Heineken Cup. A defeat in France had left them with a mountain to climb in their final pool game against Gloucester.

To ensure qualification, they needed to beat the runaway leaders of the English Premiership by a massive 27 points.

A tight victory would have had the same outcome as a defeat. Playing it safe was no use. They needed to win big, so they went out with a game plan designed to win big.

The famous ‘Miracle Match’ ended Munster 33, Gloucester 6. Exactly 27 points in the difference.

Joe Biden is facing a similar mountain.

Biden can’t just eke out a narrow victory against Trump – he needs to win big. He can’t play it safe. And his strategy has to reflect this reality.

The most pressing reason for this is the Republican party’s advantage in the Electoral College.

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.5pc but won the Electoral College by 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232.

Trump had an advantage in the battleground states that swing the Electoral College result. These states had a larger percentage of white voters without a college degree – a group pivotal to his victory.ADVERTISEMENT            

That advantage remains, with models showing that Biden needs to be at least 3pc ahead in the popular vote to safely win the Electoral College. A significant handicap.

But it’s not just delegate numbers that matter. The election night narrative also needs to be taken into account.

Due to the pandemic, postal voting will surge to record levels – with many states dealing with mail-in ballots for the first time.

And because Trump has sown baseless doubts about the integrity of this method, his voters are more likely to vote in person.

And 47pc of Biden’s voters intend to vote by post, compared with just 11pc of Trump’s supporters.

We’re likely, then, to see delayed reporting of results with early tallies favouring Trump significantly – providing a prime opportunity for Trump to erroneously present himself as the victor on election night and beyond.

The Democrat strategy must focus on winning the swing states that can immediately undermine Trump’s brazen claim to an early victory.

A win in a state like Florida, Georgia or North Carolina should be a high priority. If Trump loses one of these states, his path to the needed 270 electoral votes becomes improbable.

Florida is too close to call, but it’s vital to the election night story. The state is used to mail-in voting, and so will be called by the press relatively early. Should Biden be declared the winner of its 29 electoral votes, it would immediately take the wind out of any Trump braggadocio.

Florida should demand Democratic resources in a way it wouldn’t in a traditional campaign.

Similarly, Georgia is now a swing state, even though it hasn’t voted Democrat since 1992. If Georgia turned blue, it would be nearly impossible for Trump’s establishment defenders to maintain any lie that claimed Trump had actually won the election.

Focusing staff and money on states based on the election night narrative might seem risky, but a calm transition is an imperative.

Anyway, Biden’s self- declared mission is to win the “battle for the soul of America”.

If he’s genuine about this aim, his strategy has to be to ‘win big’. A tight victory might remove Trump temporarily, but it won’t save America from Trumpism.

It wouldn’t convince the Republican establishment to denounce his style of politics as unworkable. And it wouldn’t break his supporters’ confidence in his message. It would bring sighs of relief around the globe, but it won’t change America.

A narrow Biden win, followed by weeks of Trump propaganda pouring, just lays the groundwork for a Trump return. Or a recalibration with Donald Jr, a favourite for the 2024 Republican nomination, as a new figurehead. To destroy the movement, Biden needs to humiliate the man.

If Biden can deliver on his current 7-point lead, a lead that’s likely accurate given Clinton had a 2-point lead this time in 2016 and won the popular vote by 2.5pc, it would be a powerful victory.

A 7pc win in the popular vote, combined with wins in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Georgia, would be a rebuke Trump couldn’t recover from. And it could be emphatic enough to shock the Republican party out of its current enablist trance.

It’s impossible to know if this lead will maintain until November. But that aim has to be considered when assessing Biden’s campaign decisions.

Achieving a significant popular and Electoral College win requires a delicate communications strategy that targets numerous different voter groups in different ways.

This will, by necessity, frustrate some of his supporters. Because it involves successfully communicating to groups with contrasting needs and concerns.

The key is the timing.

Biden needs to act now to cement his gains with older and suburban voters.

Older voters are Biden’s secret weapon. In 2016 Trump won voters over 65 by 10 points, helping him win states like Pennsylvania and Florida. Biden’s now leading here by about the same margin.

One factor is likely Trump’s failure to protect that group from coronavirus.

The new recordings of interviews between Bob Woodward and Trump should be used for the next month to keep the over-65s in Biden’s lane.

Trump’s admission that he knew as early as February 7 that the coronavirus was deadlier than a flu, despite subsequent weeks spent comparing it to a seasonal flu, is a gift – if weaponised accurately.

While Biden is overperforming here, he’s slipping backwards with black and Hispanic voters.

Trump’s polling 5pc better with Hispanics, and 3pc better with black voters, compared with 2016.

Biden needs these voters back. Closer to the election, he must pivot to reclaiming their votes.

Victory in the Electoral College is within Joe Biden’s grasp if he’s brave enough to grasp it – and he doesn’t need a miracle.

He just needs discipline, timing and the dexterity to avoid any calamitous surprises – admittedly no mean feat.

Lorcan Nyhan is Head of Training with The Communications Clinic