As President Trump speaks daily to Americans about the coronavirus, his presumed opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, is invisible. At least that is what more than 80 percent of the voters on my panel of 500 tell me. It’s not just Trump supporters; more than half of Democrats feel this way also.
“He’s been silent on the national and world stage,” said Joseph, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “His social media presence is pathetic, and that is especially tragic, since it’s going to be a centerpiece of communication as we work our way out of this situation.”
His outreach to millennials has been ineffective, according to young voters on my panel who backed Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Steven, a Democrat from New York, said that the message “Vote for me to get rid of Trump” doesn’t resonate with him or his friends; nor does a plea from their parents’ generation just to swallow the pill. “We want to know what Biden will accomplish for us beyond the election, and how he’s going to do it.” Added Charles from Massachusetts, “As a person of color, I just feel that Biden needs to earn my vote and reach out to me on the issues I care about.”
It’s not like Biden isn’t trying. He announced a new plan for unemployment insurance, has conducted virtual town halls, and has appeared on television. But most people on my panel haven’t noticed — and are wondering when Biden will demonstrate that he can still lead.
Despite Trump’s low approval ratings, this is a problem for Democrats: In light of uncertainty about the coronavirus this November, it’s clear that the presidential election will be all about turnout. Americans who are charged up about their candidate — like Suzy from Ohio, who said that she will get to the polls even if she is on her deathbed — are the ones candidates can rely on. Yet, according to a recent survey by ABC and The Washington Post, Trump is winning the enthusiasm race. Whereas 53 percent of Trump supporters are very enthusiastic, only 24 percent of Biden supporters are. Building these numbers up is Job One for the Biden campaign.
What should Biden do? Lay low and pounce later, or move now? Voters are split on strategy.
The Do Nothing camp believes that it’s fine for Biden to stay quiet for now and let the president implode. “Limited exposure is not such a bad idea, and he should stay away from too many rambling interviews,“ said Robert, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “He can’t compete with Trump for airtime, and so he should not panic about it.”
These voters believe that the Biden team should prepare for what they believe will be a vicious onslaught in the fall, featuring constant messages suggesting that Biden suffers from dementia. Additional attacks on Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine could cast doubt on Joe Biden’s promise to bring integrity back to the White House. Smart action in these areas will be critical, said Lynda, a Democrat from Minnesota, “and they need to be as wicked as the Trump team will be.”
The Do Something camp takes a different view, recommending several strategies for Biden and his campaign team.
One is to grab headlines by announcing his vice presidential pick, along with a wish list of cabinet members. Key to this would be a strong Treasury secretary who will be able to help manage a fragile economy, and a strong head of Health and Human Services, such as one of the governors who is visibly leading during the pandemic. Regarding the VP pick, no prospective candidate generated widespread enthusiasm other than Michelle Obama. Said Denise from Texas, “If I were Joe Biden, I would camp out on Michelle Obama’s doorstep until she says yes.”
Another popular strategy was to acknowledge that Biden has never been good speaking off the cuff, and to focus on speeches (with teleprompters) and advertising. Among many others, David, a Democrat from North Carolina, suggests a video campaign that promotes what he calls “Biden’s biggest leadership assets: his empathy, trustworthiness, and honesty.”
Even if waiting is what his strategists counsel, Biden probably should recognize that it will be hard to outfight Trump from a standing start. Amid shortfalls of testing supplies, with the federal government swooping in to confiscate medical supplies ordered by states, death tolls surging, and Trump tweeting in support of protests from recklessly impatient “patriots” in places like Michigan, the president’s administration appears strident and disorganized in a national crisis. This is a time for leadership, as the nation’s governors are demonstrating. The time for Biden to show he can lead is now — and for all the coming months until November. Leaders don’t hide from a crisis. Neither should Biden.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html