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Why Dems Can't Run From Biden in '22
Democrats need to ignore the age old advice to run against an unpopular Dem President.
Last Friday, President Biden was scheduled to visit Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as part of his pledge to get out of the White House more often to sell his agenda. Before Air Force One could even begin taxiing down the runway at Andrews Air Force Base, Washington was abuzz with yet another damning narrative about the President’s political standing.
As Politico Playbook put it with their trademark gleeful schadenfreude:
It’s rare for a state-level politician to skip an opportunity to press the flesh with a visiting president from their own party. But that’s what two prominent Democratic hopefuls are doing when Biden arrives in Pittsburgh today. “Lt. Gov. JOHN FETTERMAN, a leading Senate candidate, and State Attorney General JOSH SHAPIRO, the likely Democratic nominee in the race for governor, will be absent,” AP’s Steve Peoples and Marc Levy note. “Another top Senate candidate, Rep. CONOR LAMB, a longtime Biden supporter based in Pittsburgh, will attend. All three had been invited to participate in a photo line with the president.”
There is no story that the political press loves more than Democratic politicians stiff-arming a Democratic president with low poll numbers. Biden faced a similar situation a few weeks ago when Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, did not attend his speech on voting rights in Atlanta. In each instance, the circumstances may be more complicated than a demonstrative diss. Fetterman actually showed up (although he wore a hoodie, shorts, and sneakers in the snow) and Shapiro, as the state’s AG, may have had completely legitimate state business to which he had to attend. Abrams cited a scheduling conflict and vocally supported Biden’s message.
But the media coverage of the absent Democrats is something we will see a lot of in the coming months. Political consultants often advise their candidates in tough races to avoid being seen with an unpopular president; to find ways to “separate” themselves. This advice is frequently given and almost always wrong. Here’s why:
“Ridin’ with Biden” is the only option for 2022.
The False Allure of Running Against One’s Party
How to handle a struggling president of one’s party has bedeviled candidates in tough races for as long as there have been elections. For years, the advice to any candidate in that situation was run against one’s party. There was a tried and true playbook for these situations. Don’t campaign with the president. Don’t be photographed with the president. And find high-profile ways to show the angry voters in your state that you share their anger and dissatisfaction with the president. A key vote against a piece of the president’s agenda or a statement opposing a policy or action are classic ways to create “distance” and demonstrate independence.
It’s easy to see why this approach is tempting. A general rule in politics is that popular is better. There is a political cost to embracing unpopular ideas. Therefore, why would you associate yourself with an unpopular politician?
Put yourself in Senator Raphael Warnock’s shoes for a moment. The freshman Senator is up for reelection in Georgia next year. He won by about 100,000 votes a little over a year ago; and in the time since, Georgia Republicans surgically attacked the voting laws that contributed to his win. Under all scenarios, even with the political winds at his back, this would be a tough race. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the challenge that he faces. Warnock has a 47/40 job approval and is in a virtual tie with Herschel Walker, the leading GOP candidate. Not a bad place to be in a battleground state. Except that poll also found that only 38 percent of Georgians approve of the job Joe Biden is doing while 58 percent disapprove. While things can (and hopefully will) change, it’s possible many candidates are going to be in Warnock’s position — outperforming the leader of their party in close elections in tough states.
Why This is a Bad Strategy
It seems patently obvious for candidates in Warnock’s position to want to create as much distance as possible from Biden. Undoubtedly, a bunch of pedestrian political consultants will advise their candidates to avoid being seen with, associated with, or admitting they have even met Joe Biden. That advice is terrible and will ensure that we hand the keys to the kingdom over to Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and perhaps eventually Donald Trump (or one of his understudies).
Dems Need a Strong Biden: Presidential approval is highly correlated with midterm success. In other words, the more popular the president, the better his party will do in the midterm elections. Democrats should want nothing more than for Biden’s approval ratings to go back up to where they were last summer. As a party, we need to do everything we can to strengthen Biden. A midterm strategy based on criticizing the President and performative demonstrations of distance will have the opposite effect. These moments will weaken Biden and weakness makes our chances of winning reelection worse, not better.
The Map: Democrats can maintain the Senate and expand our majority without competing in a single state Donald Trump won in 2020. All of the key governor’s races are happening in Biden country. The House map is more complicated and we have some Democrats running in Trump districts, but as Dave Wasserman of the Cook Report pointed out, there are likely to be more seats that voted for Biden this cycle than voted prior to redistricting. There will, of course, be some Democrats running in Trumpy districts. Those candidates will need a slightly different strategy, but those instances should be the exception, not the rule
The Math: In 2022, our top strategic imperative is to reconstitute the coalition that came together to take the House in 2018 and the White House and Senate in 2020.
We can theoretically win the vast majority of these races without persuading a single person who pulled the lever for Trump. It’s hard to see how running away from or running down the Democratic President is a good way to accomplish that goal. This is not to say that it’s all about “turnout.” We know from Virginia and New Jersey that the Republicans are going to come out in droves. But our winning coalition consists of the Democratic base, people who got involved with politics because of Trump, and people who switched sides for the same reason. Persuading people to stay involved with politics or stick with the Democrats is not an easy feat, but treating the Democratic President as persona non-grata will make it impossible.
It’s a Distraction: Democrats are at a massive messaging disadvantage in this election. The Republicans spend more money on ads. They have Fox and the MAGA media; and Facebook’s algorithm to push the message in front of every laptop, tablet, and phone. Democrats must work harder and smarter to get the message out. Every ounce of time and energy needs to be dedicated to making the case for Democrats and against Republicans. Why would we ever spend a single newscycle, tweet, or ad reinforcing the Republican case against the Democratic President?
It’s Impractical and Stupid: By seeking out distance from Biden, Democrats will get all of the downsides and none of the upsides of the President. Hypothetically, let’s say that some of the candidates following this terrible advice manage to appear on stage with Joe Biden for the whole campaign. What do these political “gurus” think will happen? Will the Republicans give up trying to tie them to Biden? Are these consultants aware that photoshop exists and that even if their candidate never appears in a photo with Biden the GOP can still put them together in a campaign ad?
While the President’s numbers are down with Democrats, he still has the approval of approximately 80 percent of Democrats in most polls. His approval rating among Republicans is in the single digits. Among Independents, it’s typically in the 30s. Democrats are unlikely to outperform Biden among Republicans. To win, they need to do better among Independents, but criticizing and weakening a President who eight in ten of our most reliable voters support is a terrible way to achieve our goal.
These are going to be really tough elections. I hold out hope (and even have some optimism) that Biden’s numbers will rebound later this year. But in the meantime, there will be enormous pressure on Democrats in tough races to run away from President Biden. That would be a tremendous error in judgment. It’s worth noting that Trump’s numbers in 2018 were worse than Biden’s are today. Republican politicians mostly stuck with Trump and it worked for them more often than not in the Senate races. Now, Republicans winning in Missouri and Indiana have it much easier than Democrats winning in Arizona and Georgia, but a similar principle applies. I urge everyone working for candidates in these Biden states to ask themselves one question before they make any decisions: Will this help me win over people who voted for Joe Biden?