The Morning Jolt


Is the Biden Campaign Struggling?

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden departs for travel to Orlando from Tampa International Airport, Fla., September 15, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

On the menu today: a long, long list of Democrats warning that the Biden campaign may not be as strong as it looks in key states and among key demographics; another former White House staffer comes out and denounces the president, offering a hard lesson about how personnel is policy; and a long look at the consequences of a Biden presidency.

A Long List of Democrats Offering Ominous Warnings to the Biden Campaign

One of the lessons of 2016 was that the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign had all kinds of internal reports of problems, signs of insufficient support and enthusiasm in key states, and ominous indicators that they were nowhere nearly as strong and effective as most of the coverage suggested.

The problem was that only a few reporters knew about those, and the ones that did had pledged to keep what they were seeing and hearing secret until after the election for their campaign narrative books. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes wrote in Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, “over the course of a year and a half, in interviews with more than one hundred subjects, we started to piece together a picture that was starkly at odds with the narrative the campaign and the media were portraying publicly.” Florida Democratic political consultants warned the campaign they were in danger of losing the Sunshine State. Clinton’s Wisconsin volunteers lacked basic resources such as campaign literature to distribute while door-knocking. The Service Employees International Union wanted to send more volunteers to Michigan and the Clinton campaign told them to keep their people to Iowa instead.

If you had really good Democratic Party or liberal activist-group sources, you heard these portentous stories that look like really key indicators in hindsight. If you didn’t, you were dependent upon the polls and the dominant narrative in the media that the Clinton campaign was an experienced, well-oiled machine while the Trump campaign was a bunch of amateur stumblebums constantly beset by infighting.

Fast-forward to today, and it feels like these kinds of, “hey, the Democratic nominee’s campaign may not be as strong as it looks” stories are leaking out into the general news coverage much more frequently.

Earlier this week, the New York Times wondered aloud about Democratic strength in Nevada:

Nevada’s Democratic political machine was held up as a model for other states where neither party has consistently dominated. But it was a machine built for another era.

Its success relied on hundreds of people knocking on thousands of doors for face-to-face conversations with voters. Now, there are fewer than half as many people canvassing for Democratic voters as there were in September 2016. And some Democratic strategists warn that Nevada could be in 2020 what Wisconsin was in 2016 — a state that the Democrats assume is safely in their column but that slips away.

The Washington Post reported that Latino Democrats are worried about Biden having lackluster numbers among this demographic:

Top Latino Democrats are voicing growing concern about Joe Biden’s campaign, warning that lackluster efforts to win the support of their community could have devastating consequences in the November election.

Recent polls showing President Trump’s inroads with Latinos have set off a fresh round of frustration and finger-pointing among Democrats, confirming problems some say have simmered for months. Many Latino activists and officials said Biden is now playing catch-up, particularly in the pivotal state of Florida, where he will campaign Tuesday — the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month — for the first time as the presidential nominee. Reaching out to Latino voters will be a key focus on the visit, according to a person with knowledge of the trip. Biden’s campaign said he will be in Tampa and Kissimmee, two areas with large Puerto Rican populations.

And Politico echoed Democrats’ worries about Latino men, as well as African-American men.

That publication also had this odd story suggesting Wisconsin Democrats think governor Tony Evers isn’t pulling his weight in that key state:

Numerous Democrats complained in interviews that Republicans are running roughshod over Evers, including during the Covid-19 crisis.

“Is he governing? Because it doesn’t feel like it,” said one Democratic party activist, who requested anonymity to express his frustrations with Evers candidly.

Control of Wisconsin’s governorship has provided an edge to Democrats in the past. Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, recounted in an interview how his political machine helped John Kerry and Barack Obama carry the state in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

“In both of those elections it was really my political organization that was kind of at the heart of where most of the work was done — most of it was ground work,” Doyle said.

That’s not going to happen this time. Whatever power a governor’s political operation might have supplied in 2020 is greatly diminished, Doyle said, largely because Covid-19 curbed in-person politicking by Democrats. Republicans, though, have taken part in door-to-door persuasion. “When you don’t have this huge ground game, it’s a different kind of atmosphere,” Doyle said.

And then there’s the account of Time magazine’s Charlotte Alter in Michigan:

The reason [voter Don] Sabbe can’t find a dedicated Biden campaign field office is because there aren’t any around here. Not in Macomb County, the swing region where Sabbe lives. It’s not even clear Biden has opened any new dedicated field offices in the state; because of the pandemic, they’ve moved their field organizing effort online. The Biden campaign in Michigan refused to confirm the location of any physical field offices despite repeated requests; they say they have “supply centers” for handing out signs, but would not confirm those locations. The campaign also declined to say how many of their Michigan staff were physically located here. Biden’s field operation in this all-important state is being run through the Michigan Democratic Party’s One Campaign, which is also not doing physical canvassing or events at the moment. When I ask Biden campaign staffers and Democratic Party officials how many people they have on the ground in Michigan, one reply stuck out: “What do you mean by ‘on the ground?’”

And this morning, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg talks to Adam Barbanel-Fried is the director of Changing the Conversation Together, a group that does something called “deep canvassing” in Pennsylvania, targeting infrequent voters who lean Democratic:

Walking the streets, Barbanel-Fried sees little sign of Joe Biden’s campaign, and that terrifies him. Democrats have historically prided themselves on their so-called ground game, but because of Covid, the Biden campaign has very few rallies and no canvassing operation. Barbanel-Fried worries that Democrats “are running basically a giant experiment,” trying to win a presidential race with almost no physical presence.

Goldberg’s column urges Democrats not to freak out, arguing that the Biden campaign is cooking with all burners in all non-in-person forms of outreach, and arguing that the Trump campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts may not be as strong as they boast. There are no doubt Republicans sweating over the fact that they’re trying to get their traditional supporters to vote early or absentee while the president keeps criticizing mail-in voting and warning that mail-in ballots may not be counted.

I would not recommend reading all of these stories and concluding, “ah, then Donald Trump is going to win.” Certain Democrats think of their party as worrywarts, full of donors, retired officeholders, activist-group leaders, and consultants who are happy to call up reporters on the political beat and complain, either on background or on the record, that the campaign isn’t listening to their advice enough. Every cycle, just about every state party official believes the national party isn’t sending enough resources their way.

I would recommend reading all of these stories and concluding that this election is not a done deal, and that because we haven’t held a presidential election under comparable circumstances, no one is entirely sure how each side’s turnout is going to be. But just because turnout is even harder to predict than usual, doesn’t mean it is necessarily going to be surprisingly low; turnout in the Democratic primaries turned out to be less than 2008 but more than 2016, even with the pandemic taking hold in early to mid March.

The Hard Lesson about Staffing an Administration

As we see yet another former White House official passionately denounce the president as unfit for office and endorse Biden — accusing the president of a “flat-out disregard for human life,” — we should remember this as a hard-learned lesson that for every president: Personnel is policy.

In the early months of the Trump administration, I was chatting with some conservative writers and activists who liked the populist Trump approach a lot more than I did, and the topic turned to who was being hired by the administration. You may recall that despite Trump being an outsider from “the Washington Establishment” and “Conservative Inc.” etc., Trump ended up hiring quite a few names from the American Enterprise Institute (Kevin Hassett, Scott Gottleib, Betsy DeVos), the Heritage Foundation (Paul Winfree, Ann Conant), and the old Koch network (Marc Short, Don McGahn) — as well as other traditionally conservative think tanks.

These other writers were not pleased; they saw this as the president hiring people with a quite different philosophy and agenda, who could not be trusted to push for a Trumpier, populist approach instead of a traditional conservative approach that he effectively ran against in the GOP presidential primary. I pointed out that think tanks operate as administrations in waiting, and that these are the sorts of people who apply to work in administration jobs when a Republican president comes to town. Trump didn’t come to Washington with a big Rolodex of people who wanted to leave their current private-sector jobs and work in the federal government. And there really isn’t a big populist or Trump-onomic think tank — other than maybe the Claremont Institute.

To the extent that “Trumpism” exists as a movement instead of, say, an attitude, it is pretty light on policy wonks. Oh, there are a few; they’re almost entirely found at the Claremont Institute. But the man at the top isn’t that interested in the details of policy, and his fanbase isn’t that interested in the details of policy. The end result is an administration that struggles to staff positions — as noted earlier this week, out of 757 top positions, the Trump administration never appointed anyone to 135 of them — and those who are there are not that committed to the man. Now throw in Trump’s other flaws — erraticism, narcissism, etc. — and you have an executive branch that is only nominally controlled by the president. As Michael Brendan Dougherty repeatedly observes, the positions of Trump and the positions of Trump administration only sometimes align.

Some may find it unfair that to enact a president’s agenda in Washington requires a preexisting think tank full of like-minded policy wonks who are eager to work for the executive branch for four to eight years and force the federal bureaucracy to enact policies it resists. (If only someone had written a book to warn them.) Of course, fair’s got nothing to do with it.

ADDENDUM: Over on the home page today, a long look at what a Biden presidency would mean. I get all the criticisms of President Trump — heck, I make most of the criticisms of President Trump — but I don’t like this notion that electing Biden wouldn’t move the country to the left all that much. Approach the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency with clear eyes and no illusions.


The Latest