One of Joe Biden’s recent campaign ads highlights President Trump’s mismanagement of COVID-19, the economic collateral damage of the virus, the president’s putative weakness on China, and his notorious tweets. It’s a snapshot of chaos, and a bet that Americans are weary of the Trump-era political culture after years of media battles, scandal, fake news, and now, a pandemic. Growing gaps in the polls suggest it’s likely to pay off.
Trump has occasionally referred to the former vice president as “Sleepy Joe.” But that may ultimately be to Biden’s benefit. While Trump embarks on tweet tirades and engages in puzzling interviews, Biden has remained relatively quiet. Many Americans don’t even know his stance on coronavirus. Biden has presented himself as a studiously moderate figure, a run-of-the-mill Democratic persona, promising both change and normality amid today’s chaos. And while many see the looming November election as a referendum on Trump, it is also a test of image — and Biden’s “sleepy” performance may be just what he needs to clear 270.
With the Russia probe, impeachment, a trade war, the ongoing struggle between the White House and the media, the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, and the rise of cancel culture, it’s been a busy four years. This may explain Biden’s apparent appeal. Consider the Downsian model of voting. Public-choice economist Anthony Downs contended that voters consider conditions under the incumbent and imagine what life would have been like under the challenger. Whoever brought — or would have brought — the most utility to an individual gets their vote, a process Downs called “rational voting.”
The catch is that rational voting is usually anything but rational. In America, utility depends on impressions. Many Americans aren’t calculating which candidate’s policies are best for them; they are calculating which candidate seems to be the best. That’s all based on image.
Political scientists have long pondered the uninformed voter: one who votes based on vague penchants and hunches over concrete policy preferences. Candidate personality and amorphous cultural affinities help create voters’ general impressions of a candidate and dictate their choices at the ballot box.
For instance, a study by political scientists John Zaller and Stanley Feldman looks at public opinion surveys, finding that “most respond to survey questions on the basis of whatever ideas are at the top of their heads at the moment of answering.” By “averaging across the considerations that happen to be salient at the moment of response,” respondents choose an answer devoid of deep conviction. Economists Faruk Gul and Wolfgang Psensedorfer take this a step further and suggest that personality can win elections. “Voter ignorance” on policy plus “personality preference” mean that the more attractive candidate often prevails, regardless of specific policy.
Altogether, Downs’ theory and the very real idea combination of “voter ignorance” and “personality preference” suggest that an average voter chooses their highest utility based on impressions.
So why would Biden’s image infer higher utility for voters? Why would Biden have been better over these last four years than Trump?
Biden’s relative boringness and Trump’s erratic presidency come together for the perfect storm in this unusual political moment, rendering the impression of a bland candidate as most consistent with voters’ utility preferences. The chaos of the past decade is also a factor — the whiplash from “Change!” to “America First” may certainly be enough to drive tired voters into the arms of old-school, bland Joe. His “return to normalcy” appeal is just the redemption he needs to distinguish himself from the transformational feeling of the Obama era.
One might retort that Biden is not as harmless as he seems. After all, he just teamed up with Sanders in a “unity task force” to roll out a list of policy recommendations before the Democratic National Convention. Other progressive leaders, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), contributed to the document. On one level, Biden’s critics are correct that he is capitulating to the Left’s growing progressive wing. But on another, they’re missing the point: If Biden succeeds at portraying himself as a calming moderate, then he wins the messaging battle.
Downs offers another point in favor of Biden’s image: Americans vote based on changes in performance. Trump’s trend there isn’t looking too good. “Keep America Great” doesn’t sound as appealing in light of racial injustices and mass public-health mismanagement. Only 42 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s management of coronavirus, down from 50 percent in April. And the positive economic trends celebrated just months ago by the Trump administration have been utterly destroyed. These events certainly have consequences on public opinion. For instance, Trump’s job approval has taken a direct hit, falling from 49 percent in March to 39 percent today in Gallup’s survey.
Trump’s “America First” message likely won’t fare well either. Conversations around America’s legacy of racial inequality, coupled with an unsympathetic approach by Trump to condemning things such as Confederate imagery, breed low morale. U.S. national pride is tanking: In 2015, Gallup reported that 81 percent of Americans were very proud or extremely proud to be American. Today, the number stands at 63 percent. Republicans aren’t immune to Trump trends either: 76 percent were extremely proud in 2019 while only 67 percent are extremely proud today.
All the while, President Trump is taking on all of these matters, commenting on anything and everything. Despite any arguably positive achievements he may have achieved during his presidency, many Americans will only remember the impression he gave over time. From his botched COVID briefings to his insistence on maintaining Confederate-named bases, the president is currently drawing the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile “sleepy” Joe is keeping a low profile. Biden brings a dose of monotony that Americans seem to be craving.