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Warning Signs: Don’t Panic, But Plenty To Be Nervous About

The Biden campaign and the progressive movement can't be complacent -- we'll all need to heed early warning signs of deficiency and right the ship as quickly and forcefully as possible to win in November.
Warning Signs: Don’t Panic, But Plenty To Be Nervous About
New Biden ad on health care. Image from: Youtube // Joe Biden

We are entering the scary time of the election season, and there are more reasons to worry than the normal tightening of the polling in the battleground states.

Note: this column has recommendations for two groups. The first is the Biden campaign, because I think there needs to be some course correction. The second is  the progressive movement, because we lefties are definitely going to need to help save the day.

I want to start by saying that there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic, and plenty of good things the Biden campaign is doing. The Build Back Better policy work has been solid, and the messaging around it has been effective, a nice blend of mainstream Democratic language combined with a good dose of progressive populism. Many of their TV ads have been moving and well done about the kind of man Joe Biden is and how much empathy he has for the American people. And since picking Kamala Harris as his VP nominee, the use of her in their ads has been great. 

Another thing I watch closely is what a campaign does on organic social media, whose friend-to-friend reach I increasingly believe has become the single most effective way in a pandemic for a campaign to win over and turn out votes, and I think the Biden campaign’s organic social media work has been light years ahead of the Hillary campaign’s. In 2016, we lost the election in great part because the Trump campaign, helped by its Russian friends, killed us on organic social media while Hillary’s team was barely functional there. This year, the Biden campaign's organic reach and strategy may well be better than Team Trump.

The campaign’s fundraising has been great, and the polling remains solid. Their field operation seems good to me, and their legal prep for all the big challenges ahead both pre- and post- election has been impressive.

If I were feeling confident, I would end a stretch of good news like that by saying “but we can’t take anything for granted, we are still going to work our hearts out…” But I am feeling a lot less confident at this moment than at any time in the cycle so far, so I am sounding the alarm bells. If I am a little critical of my friends in the Biden campaign, deep apologies. I do hate to be, but having seen from my perch at the DNC last time the mistakes Team Hillary made, I am deathly afraid of making some of the same mistakes this time.

Here’s what’s given me trouble sleeping at night lately:

1. First and foremost, the enthusiasm gap is real. I had been hoping that the much discussed enthusiasm gap between Trump voters and Biden voters was going to be washed away by Democratic voters’ intense antipathy toward Trump, the kind of antipathy that drove extraordinary levels of Democratic turnout in the 2018 election. Maybe that will still come to pass, I hope and pray (and I’m an agnostic, so the praying thing is a true sign of how freaked I am). But right now pro-Republican demographic groups are registering to vote at far higher numbers than the youth and people-of-color groups that usually favor Democrats -- and this is true even in non-battleground states where there isn’t much money being spent on voter registration, which is one more sign of a general enthusiasm gap. 

In addition, the first numbers out on vote-by-mail requests, which pollsters said would probably favor Democrats by 30%, are only favoring us by 12%. That is a bad sign, since all of our messaging right now is about requesting your ballot early to make sure it gets counted.

The polling I’m seeing has been pretty clear as well: young people (especially young progressives which is a very high percentage of them) and people of color, especially Latinos and Latinas, are just less passionate about this election than the Trump people. Given the barriers to voting the Republicans are putting in people’s way at every turn, that lack of enthusiasm is a big deal.

2. The concern re Latinos and Latinas. In spite of the over-the-top racism which Trump has shown toward Latinos and Latinas, we are not only fighting uphill with this demographic on enthusiasm, we also have a lot of persuasion to do: Biden is running behind Hillary among Latino/a voters.

The campaign has received lots of criticism from Latino and Latina leaders about the weak outreach to this constituency, and there is no need for me to go into it more here, other than to say it’s a big deal. The conventional wisdom is that Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado are the only battleground states where this vote matters (with NV and CO leaning our way pretty strongly), but the Latino population is now above or close to double digits in Iowa, Georgia, and North Carolina. And the Latino population is growing everywhere: it is now at 5% or more even in those Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Texas, with 5.6 million eligible Latino voters, has truly become a state where it is possible for Democrats to win, which is important not only because the presidential race there has remained very close, but because there’s a competitive Senate race, several House races, and the state legislature is in play. 

We have to do better with Latinos and Latinas than we have been doing. Fortunately, there are pieces of good news here. One is that the Biden campaign finally is starting to move on this concern, and they have the ability between now and Election Day to make major strides. Secondly, Chuck Rocha, who was the genius behind Bernie Sanders’ strong performance with Latino voters in the primary, has a super PAC that is doing incredible work in this community. For those of you looking for someplace to invest money, Nuestro PAC would be a great place to start.

3. The health care polling. Between the pandemic, the millions of people laid off and therefore who’ve lost their health insurance, and the ongoing crisis of rapidly mounting health care costs, health care is the number one issue in 2020, both in terms of raw numbers and in terms of the powerful emotional saliency of the issue. And normally this would be great news for Democrats. In this case, however, there is something very nerve-wracking going on according to the polling.

We should be wiping the floor against Trump on health care. We completely dominated the Republicans in 2018 on health care, essentially winning the election on that issue. And given how badly Trump has handled the pandemic, getting the blame that he so thoroughly deserves from most voters (2/3 of voters in multiple polls disapprove of his handling of Covid, and don’t trust what he says on the issue), we should be winning on a wide range of health care issues by 20+ points. But Biden is way underperforming here. 

The only health issue we are ahead by 20 points on is reproductive health care. We are only up 14 on the Democrats’ signature issue for the last four years -- pre-existing conditions -- and we are only up 12 on making sure everyone has access to care. This after four years of Trump doing everything in his power to repeal the ACA. We are only up 6 on lowering health costs. In spite of Trump’s lack of credibility on the issue, we are barely above the margin of error, 5 points, on who will do a better job of developing and distributing the vaccine. And we are actually losing by 4 on lowering drug prices.

My eyes popped out of my skull when I saw those numbers. They are really bad news for us. Trump is spending a lot of time lying about how he will lower drug prices and make health care better, and in the absence of much messaging from Biden on this, he is gaining ground fast on this absolutely critical issue. Generic promises, mentioned only occasionally on the campaign trail, about preserving and improving the ACA are not enough. Our ads need to make 100% clear that Biden is going to fight for lower drug prices and lower out-of-pocket costs, that he will make health care more available to all those who have lost their jobs in the last six months. This should be our best issue, we need to win it big.

The great news is that the campaign is seeing the need and responding: they are out with two powerful new ads about health care today, here and here. It is such a relief to see these after a long spell where instead of having powerful ads like these solely focused on health care, there have been hardly any ads that did more than spend a moment on health care. More of these, please.

4. The economic polling. Polls are consistently indicating that in spite of Trump presiding over the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, voters still trust him at least as much or probably a little more than Biden on the economy. Again, the reason is clear: Trump talks constantly about the economy on the campaign trail, while the Biden message has not talked enough about it.

This is the best ad of the campaign so far from the Biden team, an ad they ran in Ohio. They need to do more of it: talk about Biden’s commitment to building a better economy for working- and middle-class voters. And in their messaging, they need to talk more about the issues they’ve committed to in the Build Back Better plan: creating millions of jobs in solar and wind energy, rebuilding our country’s infrastructure, helping working families with child care, revitalizing the rural economy, having the government buy American made products, and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. These are popular issues, and voters need to hear that Biden is focused like that proverbial laser beam on making this economy work for American working families.

5. Being hesitant about populism. According to the pollsters at Democracy Corps, who over the last 20 years have consistently been among the most accurate pollsters in the country, here is the language that does more to consolidate and expand the Biden lead than any other language they tested:

Both parties failed to address the cycle of wealth and power that has rigged the economy for the benefit of those at the top and determined the working class. Both parties left the system rigged. Trump is not the cause of our divided nation. He is the symptom of a rigged system that was already dividing us. We must come together and reform the system that got us here in the first place by uniting people of all races, genders, and classes, and band together now to unrig this corrupt system.

Hillary’s campaign four years ago, obsessed by Republican women in the suburbs, failed to have a closing message that was more populist about the economy. She kept the message focused on what a terrible guy Donald Trump was.

I am hoping against hope the Biden campaign does not make the same mistake. They have invested a huge amount in trying to make gains among Republican voters, and I am fine with that -- we need every voter we can get. But having made the gains we can with that group of voters, we need to close on a more populist note that will appeal to the working-class swing voters that turned so heavily against us last time, and on firing up and turning out all those base voters who did turn out in 2016. A good dose of populism does both things.

The future of America and the climate is at stake: the progressive movement needs to deliver.

I don’t know whether the Biden campaign will move in the more populist direction I am suggesting. They are clearly starting to respond to the concerns about Latinos/Latinas and health care, which I am thrilled to see. But whatever they end up doing, the progressive movement has to stay focused on saving our future. We are the ones who are most in touch with the young people and people of color whose turnout we so desperately need. We are the ones who can highlight the critical economic and health care issues that need to be delivered to voters. We are the ones who can get voters registered and get them turned out. We have to stand and deliver.

We in the progressive movement can get our voters out; we can fire up our people and close the enthusiasm gap. If we do, we will win this election, whatever crazy distractions Trump does in the final weeks, whatever happens with the Biden campaign. It is up to progressives to save the world. Let’s win in this decisive moment.

This is part of our continuing coverage of the 2020 elections.

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