World·Analysis

Trump attempts a marketing makeover: Joe Biden as radical Marxist enabler

Donald Trump is in a difficult spot with swing voters and trying to shift the race by rebranding his campaign rival. Will Americans really buy the idea of Joe Biden as a radical Marxist enabler? It's a novel sales pitch, based on an old political tactic. Canadians may recognize it from their own elections.

Struggling with swing voters, Trump turns to a well-honed political tactic of campaigning against someone else

Trump addressed the 2020 Republican convention from the White House lawn on Thursday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Sometimes, in politics, fate grants you a rival who stirs the deepest enmity of swing voters, sending them stampeding to the polls motivated mostly by the goal of defeating that other passion-rousing candidate.

And sometimes fate sticks you with Joe Biden.

One of Donald Trump's biggest challenges in this election is too few voters seem exercised about his rival. Survey after survey suggests that critical moderate swing-voters are generally OK with this year's Democratic nominee. Even Biden's own supporters profess to not being especially animated by him

If those types of key voters wind up turning out for Biden in a way they didn't for Hillary Clinton in 2016, as polls suggest they might, that would likely end the Trump presidency.

That speaks to the power of negative partisanship — the notion that elections are often decided by whom voters dislike, as much as by whom they like.

Trump spent his prime-time speech to the Republican convention trying to tie his rival to something those moderate swing voters deeply, passionately dislike:

Radical, left-wing socialism.

WATCH | Part 1 of Trump's acceptance speech:

Donald Trump revisited the successes he says he has brought about in his first four years, making the argument for his re-election. 28:33

In other words, the president argued, the real political power in today's Democratic party is not held by an unobtrusive 77-year-old centrist, but by the party's fringes.

"Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism," Trump suggested. 

"If Joe Biden doesn't have the strength to stand up to wild-eyed Marxists like Bernie Sanders and his fellow radicals … then how is he ever going to stand up for you?"

He argued that the police-defunding, fossil-fuel-opposing flank of the Democratic party would easily overpower Biden, control the governing agenda, wreck the economy, and cause chaos in the streets.

As if to illustrate his message of looming mob-led disorder, a crowd in downtown Washington, D.C., swarmed attendees leaving the Trump speech.

Will it work for Trump?

Will Trump's approach persuade Americans to recoil from Biden — and to either vote for Trump; vote for a third party, as so many did in 2016; or simply to stay home?

In interviews conducted last weekend in a bellwether county in the key swing state of Michigan, some conservative-leaning voters echoed the president's concerns.

WATCH | Part 2 of Trump's acceptance speech:

Donald Trump spent much of the second part of his speech attacking his opponent, Joe Biden, listing all the ways he believes the former vice-president and the Democrats will destroy America. 41:37

Kel Giese, 20, made clear she's no Trump admirer. The resident of Michigan's Kent County, who leans Republican, said she has considered voting Democrat.

But ultimately she said she's frightened by what she sees as an increasingly radical Democratic party that, in her view, has not sufficiently denounced violent protests.

"I'm going to probably vote for Trump," she said.

Some voters who don't like Trump agree with his messages about Democrats. Kel Giese, 20, seen here in Grand Rapids, Mich., last Saturday, is one such swing-state voter who expects to cast her ballot for Trump. (Alexander Panetta/CBC News)

"The vote for Trump is not in support of Trump. It's because the other side is scary ... the riots that have been happening recently are scary. The protests that turn into riots — and the left's reaction."

Yet she makes an entirely different prediction about the broader election result. She thinks most voters will pick Biden, and that Biden will win. Why? "He's a more agreeable candidate. I think people who are undecided are going to go for Biden."

Trump's accusations versus the public record

Indeed, Trump's sales pitch has its challenges.

Biden had a voting record smack dab in the middle of the centre-left when he was a senator, according to a formula used by political scientists to assess voting patterns.

In a group of 51 Democrats and Democratic-aligned senators, in Biden's final term in Congress, he had the 27th-most liberal voting record. 

That was far behind the No. 1 progressive: Sanders.

A fireworks show over federal property after Trump's speech on Washington's National Mall, an unprecedented event for a partisan campaign, which critics called an abuse of power and illegal. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Is Biden anti-police? That charge squares poorly with a contradictory message at the Republican convention. Several speakers argued Biden was previously too tough on crime — and sent too many African American people to jail with laws he endorsed.

Economy destroyer? In the last Democratic administration, in which Biden was vice-president, the economy kept growing after the 2009 recession and achieved rates of expansion in 2014 the Trump era hasn't ever matched. Unemployment steadily fell.

WATCH | Republican strategist Rick Wilson says Trump is trying to scare voters:

In adopting a political playbook last used in the 1968 U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump is trying to scare voters into supporting him, says Republican strategist Rick Wilson. 6:35

Overpowered by the left? The idea that Sanders and the so-called progressive squad now run the Democratic Party is at least somewhat underscored by the results of this year's presidential primaries, ultimately dominated by Biden.

It's true that Biden has adopted a platform significantly to the left of Barack Obama's. The platform was finalized in negotiations with pro-Sanders progressives including first-term congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Campaign signs seen in Wisconsin last week. They illustrate how feelings about Trump, not Biden, are driving this election. (Susan Ormiston, Alex Panetta/CBC)

Trump listed a few of those policies in his speech — while leaving out key details. He said Biden would raise taxes and destroy people's retirement savings. (Biden's proposed income-tax hikes would affect people earning over $400,000)  

He said Biden would ban the deportation of undocumented migrants. (That doesn't come up in Biden's immigration platform. What the platform does commit to, and what Biden promised in a primary debate, was a halt for 100 days)

Canada: You've seen this play before

Any Canadian interested in the science of negative partisanship need look no further than our own last federal election.

The Trudeau Liberals embedded it into the core of their election strategy.

After the campaign was over, some senior strategists confided the reason the prime minister kept mentioning Doug Ford and Stephen Harper on the campaign trail — because his main rival, Andrew Scheer, elicited few passions from swing voters, and the Liberals invoked other conservative politicians who provoked stronger negative reactions.

Now Trump is deploying a similar tactic — only, in his case, his Doug Ford is Bernie Sanders.

While Trump's tactic was not new, his speech venue was.

Trump, forced by the pandemic to cancel convention plans in North Carolina and Florida, held a first-of-its-kind convention rally on the White House lawn.

According to his critics, he not only smashed norms  — but also repeatedly violated the law that forbids partisan politicking with federal resources.

WATCH | Giuliani says Trump will make U.S. safe again:

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani says Trump is the only man who will make the U.S. safe again. 1:21

Background documents prepared for Congress suggest there's some wiggle room for non-work areas of the White House.

But several officials in past administrations said any use of federal employees in the event, and in the subsequent fireworks display over the Washington Monument, would be a blatant violation of federal law.

Last week at their convention, Trump's Democratic rivals warned that Trump's behaviour was destroying democratic norms and whisking the U.S. toward autocracy.

So when Trump declared in his speech Thursday night that, "This is the most important election in the history of our country," he drew support from a rare place.

His rival, Biden, tweeted: "Donald Trump is right, this is the most important election in the history of our country."

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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