Biden Settles on a Message against Trump: He’s even Worse than Before

Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post
President Biden delivers remarks Tuesday at the White House during an event marking the 12th anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

President Biden quietly revealed his campaign’s master strategy to defeat Donald Trump last month at a private fundraiser outside Seattle.

“Let’s get to the message of the campaign,” Biden told a crowd of about 100 who had gathered in a sprawling lakeside mansion. Reading from a teleprompter, the president declared that Trump is now a greater threat to the country than during his time in office.

“When he lost in 2020, something snapped in him,” Biden said, a bumper sticker slogan he has been repeating ever since.

The notion that the former president changed – becoming more self-obsessed, more dangerous and more extreme – has since been seeded throughout Biden’s campaign, the result of months of polling, focus groups and ad testing, his advisers say. Independent Democratic groups that plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help reelect Biden have come to similar conclusions in their own research, according to people familiar with that work who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy.

The message is aimed not just at 2020 Biden voters who have since wandered away, but also at the significant group of swing voters who oppose both major-party candidates. Faced with dim approval ratings and more Americans with favorable views of Trump’s presidency than his own, Biden is making his case to those who don’t want to choose: The other guy is worse than you realize.

“The number one priority is to make sure that voters understand that Trump was a bad president and he will be even worse if he has a second term,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Biden who helped build the case against Mitt Romney in 2012. “The hinge is Trump’s response to losing the 2020 election – ‘snapping,’ as President Biden says – and becoming unhinged.”

The frame has since become explicit in daily communications, paid advertising and the torrent of digital communication that the campaign puts out every week. It echoes a similar decision by President Barack Obama and his allies in early 2012 to aim their firepower at a single story they told for months on the stump and in advertising about Romney, the Republican presidential nominee: He is a predatory businessman who has hurt the middle class and will do so again.

“We’ve been working on how to marry the sins and the ills of the first term and Trump’s visceral branding that continues to a second term, because voters are always voting on the future,” said Molly Murphy, another pollster working on the Biden campaign effort. “It allows us to talk about a variety of issues.”

Among those issues are much of what the Biden campaign now obsesses over – Trump’s embrace of the term “dictator,” his rhetoric about “retribution,” his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, his more aggressive second-term policy plans and his legal challenges. The campaign also plans to broaden the attack in the coming weeks by arguing that Trump is now more willing to give away policy wins to the wealthy and well connected, citing the former president’s recent comments at fundraisers promising to reward high-dollar donors.

This week, the campaign released an ad that focused on Trump’s felony convictions for business fraud and civil judgments regarding sexual assault and additional fraud. Advisers say the import of that ad is not the felony label that got headlines, but the argument Biden’s team is using the label to make.

“It is about why he is a felon,” said another campaign strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “He doesn’t care about the harm that he causes as long as he serves himself.”

Trump has been building his own campaign on a framing the campaign announced in May – “strength versus weakness, success versus failure and the complete dishonesty of the Biden administration.” His operation has focused its message on attacking Biden’s performance on the economy, inflation, immigration and public safety, while also criticizing Biden’s mental competence and leadership.

“Joe Biden’s attacks are not only desperate. They are an admission that his administration and policies are abject failures,” Trump adviser Chris LaCivita said in a statement. “The American people aren’t buying what the White House is selling.”

The Biden approach embraces the typical reelection campaign strategy for sitting presidents – to turn attention onto their opponent. The campaign plans to continue some positive advertising at the same time, especially in ads aimed at convincing Black, Latino and younger voters that Biden has achieved significant policy wins that benefit them. But unlike 2020, when Biden ran a largely positive advertising effort, this cycle is expected to be far more negative.

“What I said to Barack Obama is, ‘If it is about the incumbent, the incumbent loses. If it is a choice, we’ll win,’” said Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. “What Joe Biden is doing is setting up that choice.”

But there are important differences this cycle. A priority for the Obama campaign was to raise his approval rating above 50 percent before the election, Messina said, but this cycle there is little expectation that either Biden or Trump will enjoy anything close to that level of support. Biden’s approval has been hovering below 40 percent, while Trump’s favorability is just over 40 percent in polling averages.

Another difference is the significant familiarity of voters with both candidates, a fact that typically reduces the impact of advertising and other forms of voter contact. John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, has measured small effects of political advertising disparities between major-party candidates in each of the presidential elections between 2000 and 2016, though he said that effect diminished during the 2020 campaign, which broke records in advertising spending.

“You could also chalk it up to the fact that opinions of Biden and Trump were not changing very much with regard to the advertising content,” Sides said. But he did not rule out the possibility that advertising this year could have an effect, by reminding voters about things they had forgotten about either candidate or reframing how they think about the election.

“I think it is not quite right to say that people’s views of these candidates can’t change at all,” he said.

Biden and his allies have already spent more than $116 million on television and radio advertising, including $65 million from the campaign itself, according to AdImpact, with little noticeable movement in polling. By contrast, the Trump campaign has yet to air any general-election television ads, while one aligned group, MAGA Inc., has been on the air with about $20 million in ads since March.

The Biden spending has accelerated in recent weeks, as the campaign has landed on an attack message that is a sharp departure from the advertising Biden employed in 2020. Between April and October of that year, fewer than 10 percent of Biden’s ads aired were categorized by the Wesleyan Media Project as pure attack ads on Trump, a strategy that accounted for the belief among Biden aides that most Americans were well acquainted with the Republican’s less flattering features.

This cycle, the campaign has shifted its recent spending to direct attacks on Trump. One-third of the broadcast television advertising budget so far has been put into a late-May ad, with a narration by actor Robert De Niro, that uses Biden’s “snapped” language from earlier in the month. The ad is divided between attacks on Trump’s first term and his more extreme comments since leaving office.

“Trump wants revenge, and he will stop at nothing to get it,” De Niro says at the end of the spot.

Mike Donilon, a longtime advertising and message strategist for Biden, continues to oversee the advertising, polling and messaging project for Biden. He helped Biden frame his 2020 campaign around Trump’s comments regarding a 2017 white-supremacist rally to oppose the removal of a statue of a Confederate general in Charlottesville. Trump said the demonstrators included both “very bad people” and “very fine people.”

Since then, Donilon and Biden have come to believe that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was an even more momentous historical pivot point, on par with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, according to people familiar with the comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations. The first ad that Biden did this campaign cycle began with images from the Capitol attack.

But the framing of that attack as part of a broader shift in Trump’s character, intention and disposition has been more recent. “Folks, it’s clearer every day: The threat Trump poses would be greater in a second term than it was in his first term,” Biden said Tuesday at a fundraiser before repeating the “snapped” language.

“He’s not only obsessed with losing in 2020; he’s clearly a little bit unhinged right now,” Biden continued. “No, I’m being serious.”