A divisive debate for a divided nation
What Biden needs to do to win
The media and Trump critics have already given the election to Joe Biden, President Trump's Democratic opponent. They made the same error in 2016. They early-on gave the contest to Hillary Clinton. Biden is ahead in the polls today, but with slightly less than three months left to election time, this conclusion is premature.
As a lifelong Democrat, I want to see Biden win. What must he do to ensure victory?
First, Biden must ignore the polls that show him ahead and consider the presidential contest as a tight, competitive race - because it is.
A recent, widely quoted Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed Biden ahead by 15 points. This number shrinks to 11 points among likely voters. This number reduces to seven points among voters who say they voted in 2016 and claim that they will vote in 2020. Further, the poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. That reduces the Biden advantage to 3.5 points. Not a comfortable margin.
Still further, Midwestern battle ground states, according to Democratic elected officials in these states, are considerably closer and more competitive than polling indicates.
Second, Biden should focus on his plans for economic recovery and growth and job creation. His "Buy American" proposal and support for childcare funding are crucial for gaining traction among working-class families. Recent polling indicates that the economy is the sole area where Trump gets a favorable rating among a majority of the respondents. Biden must stress his working class roots and the economic agenda and priorities that distinguish him from Trump.
Biden needs to run as an economic populist and acknowledge the negative impact on the working class - especially the non-college educated - of a race-to-the-bottom globalized economy and bad trade deals. He must also acknowledge that the working class want their livable wage jobs back. Their despair and resentment elected Donald Trump. But, at the same time, Biden must avoid embracing the quasi-socialist agenda of the Democratic Party left. Biden needs to remember that the American working class has never been enamored of or supportive of socialism. They want fair and equitable capitalism.
Third, Biden must base his campaign on issues. He should not incessantly attack the president and point out Trump's ongoing failures and deficits. Everyone knows how deeply offensive Trump is and how badly he has mismanaged the pandemic. Trump willingly demonstrates this daily. We do not need Biden to illustrate the obvious. We have enough reason not to vote for Trump. We now need a reason to vote for Biden.
Fourth, Biden needs to find a way to address protests that turn into violent and chaotic confrontations. Nearly all of these violent protest situations are occurring in cities and states that are governed by Democrats (like Portland, Oregon). Trump uses these incidents to taint Biden with the claim that his Democratic administration would bend to the radical left and tolerate violence and disorder.
Trump (like Richard Nixon in the 1960s) is becoming the law and order candidate. Lawlessness and disorder is a telling issue for suburban, moderate Republican, and independent voters. Biden needs these voters to build a winning coalition in battleground states. Responding to the Trump narrative about Democrats accepting and tolerating violence will be a challenge. Biden needs to find a way to clearly articulate support for legitimate protest and rejection of lawlessness.
Fifth, Biden needs to confront the uptick in shootings and deaths that have marked major cities governed by Democrats. Trump weaves a narrative that identifies these crimes and lack of public safety with the Democratic Party - and hence with Biden. In campaign advertising and public statements Trump claims that this is what we have to look forward to on a broad scale in a Biden presidency. Biden is in a tough position on this issue. His past support for strong anti-crime legislation has been a source of embarrassment in this anti-mass incarceration environment.
Sixth, Biden needs to outline a national response to the pandemic. Trump's leadership on confronting the pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster. It is his greatest weakness. He has politically polarized the nation on wearing face masks, ending the lockdown, and re-opening schools. He has promoted conspiracy theories and false claims about unproven medical treatments.
Biden needs to unify us as a nation to confront the pandemic; bring states together rather than pitting them against one another - as Trump has done - in desperate competition for medical equipment; and outline how he would mobilize and bring together federal government resources to provide hospitals and senior care facilities with the medical supplies they desperately need.
Finally, Biden needs to seriously prepare for the debates with Trump. The Democratic primary debates revealed Biden's weakness as a debater. His responses to questions from panelists were often confusing, he did not articulate himself well, and he did poorly in the interchange with other debaters. He was the weakest debater among the major candidates. Trump is a Reality TV star and a natural for the give and take of the televised debate environment. Trump called for more than the customary three debates with Biden because he saw additional debates as an opportunity to exploit the Biden weakness on the debate stage.
I recently came across a 2016 newsletter issued by a respected political scientist. The newsletter came out 16 days before the election and assured readers that Hillary Clinton had solidified her lead in the presidential contest. This is a lesson for Biden. Do not believe that victory is assured. Polls are snapshots in time.
Biden needs to run a strategic and effective campaign. Thump has a loyal base, the political situation is fluid, ongoing violence and disorder in Democratic-governed areas and the extreme leftward shift of the Democratic Party may dissuade moderate voters from supporting Biden. While the majority of voters disapprove of Trump's disgraceful behavior, enough citizens may vote for him to give him victory in the Electoral College.
Joshua Sandman is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven. He has studied the American presidency for five decades.