October 25, 2020
While millions of early votes are pouring in across the country, it is still premature to declare that Joe Biden’s persuasion-based electoral strategy has been vindicated. But with the Democratic nominee and former Vice President averaging a 10-point lead in the national polls less than two weeks out from Election Day, the odds are increasing that his campaign’s efforts to peel off center-right voters was a shrewd strategy.
Polls show that Republican voters remain committed to Trump’s reelection, and it would be naive to expect that either candidate would be able to convert their opponent’s die-hard supporters. However, Biden’s attempts to win over voters at the center of the political spectrum has helped him overperform among Republican-leaning independents.
A recent poll from my group, the Survey Center on American Life, shows that only 55 percent of Republican-leaning independents are currently supporting Trump, while Biden has consolidated support among 80 percent of Democratic-leaning independents. New York Times analysis also shows Biden making gains among Trump-leaning groups in critical midwestern states.
But beyond the direct benefit of attracting votes, an electoral strategy prioritizing reaching into the middle of the electorate makes it difficult to be painted as extreme or divisive by your opponent.
At a time when Democrats and Republicans increasingly see each other as a threat to the country, a moderate, consensus-oriented approach appears to be paying dividends for Biden. A recent Pew Research Center poll finds that Biden’s largest advantage over Trump is in being viewed as able to “bring the country closer together” (50 percent vs. 30 percent, respectively).
In some ways, Biden’s strategy of wooing disaffected Republican and conservative voters looks obvious. Trump’s approval rating has sat in the low to mid 40s since taking office and even those who approve of what he’s doing in office are often turned off by how he’s doing it.
However, the success of Biden’s tack wasn’t always so clear. Early in the Democratic primary campaign, liberal firebrands Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders captured the attention and the adoration of the party’s base along with a steady stream of campaign contributions. Given Trump’s dismal ratings among Democratic voters and the enthusiasm for removing him, the left-wing of the party was counting on a strategy of activating liberal-leaning nonvoters, and irregular voters with far-reaching progressive policies.
What’s more, the leftward shift of the Democratic party made Biden’s down-the-middle strategy more complicated. According to Gallup, nearly half of Democrats identify as liberal today, compared to roughly one-third in the early 2000s. The Democratic platform has moved considerably to the left over the past decade as a result.
But even as Biden has made policy concessions to the liberal wing of his party, he has pushed back against the most extreme progressive policies, such as defunding police departments, and has sought to instead focus on consensus “kitchen-table” topics. One result of Biden’s shift toward the center has been that he is disliked less even among core Trump supporters. Less than one-third of Trump voters say they would be angry if Biden were to win the election.
In an era that rewards extreme personalities and politics, Biden seems anachronistic. Even his rhetorical appeals to heal the political divisions —”there will be no blue states and red states with me“— seem unmoored from political reality.
Affective polarization — the degree to which Democrats and Republicans dislike each other — is growing and our recent poll shows that partisans are no longer even talking to each other. A majority of both Democrats and Republicans have no close contacts who are members of the opposite party.
Whether purposeful or inevitable, the result of temperament or strategy, Trump’s campaign has always been about activating his core supporters. Trump’s rhetoric and style excite his base, but often at the expense of reaching the middle. Because he speaks to his most avid supporters he will never lose them, but he will also never expand his coalition.
Ironically, a decisive Biden victory in November could increase the likelihood that campaigns make more concerted attempts to reach the middle. In low-turnout, closely-divided elections, which have been the norm in the 21st century, a base strategy makes sense. Electoral stability and high rates of nonparticipation create incentives for campaigns to deploy their own voters as opposed to seeking out the persuadable.
If Biden is able to capitalize on the current set of circumstances presented by an unpopular incumbent, he may show the efficacy of persuasion-based tactics simply by demonstrating that there are more persuadable voters than many of us think.
If this strategy falls on its face, we’re likely doomed to campaigns racing to their respective poles to animate a shrinking pool of the pre-converted. Base-driven campaigns primarily focus on dragging their opponent down as opposed to presenting a positive forward-looking agenda.
And sure, all campaigns feature negative advertisements, but when your goal is not to convert your opponents’ supporters, but to depress them it requires a lot more negativity. An election that featured two campaigns vying for a robust group of convincible voters would certainly be something to behold.