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The Urgent Need to Blow Off Swing Voters
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By The New York Times
Published 3 weeks ago on
June 25, 2024

Elizabeth Spiers argues that in the upcoming debate, Biden and Trump should focus on rallying their core supporters by addressing key concerns and highlighting contrasting visions, rather than chasing undecided swing voters. (Thalassa Raasch for The New York Times)

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Opinion by Elizabeth Spiers on June 25, 2024.

THURSDAY’S DEBATE IS TIME TO PREACH TO THE CHOIR.

In a presidential election where both leading candidates are unpopular, there’s much talk about what each candidate can say to swing voters in Thursday’s debate. But true swing voters are disengaged from political news; in fact, many avoid it with a determination normally reserved for toxic exes, ticks and food poisoning. To the extent they learn what’s said on Thursday, it’ll be via repackaged clips on social media.

The voters who will be glued to their screens will be registered Democrats and Republicans — along with self-identified independents, 81 percent of whom, according to Pew Research Center, have consistent partisan leanings — and to put it mildly, none of them are enthusiastic about their choices. Loathing for both parties is at an all-time high, and 25 percent of voters are what pollsters call “double haters.”

Candidates Must Focus on Their Own Supporters

So President Biden and former President Donald Trump can’t just focus on making people hate the other guy more, though each does need to be aggressive about defining his opponent’s weaknesses. What they must do more than anything else is address concerns their own supporters have and give people who want to be on their side a reason to get excited.

That’s where the similarity ends. Mr. Biden’s challenge is to reassure skeptical Democrats that he is still vigorous and that he is responsive to voters’ worries about inflation and other problems on their minds. Mr. Trump needs to convince Nikki Haley Republicans and others concerned about his ethics that their differences are less significant than his promise of financial security, tight borders and abortion restrictions.

Both candidates are, to put it bluntly, old, but age is costing Mr. Biden more in terms of perception. Mr. Trump‘s bombast is often construed as youthful energy, a fact he has used to great effect, referring to Mr. Biden as “sleepy Joe” — even though only one of them nodded off during his own criminal trial. But voters aren’t judging the candidates on the same issues. They’re judging each man on his own most prominent negative trait. For Mr. Biden, it’s his age. For Mr. Trump, it’s his criminal convictions, or the perception that he is an extremist, motivated by revenge.

Biden Needs to Acknowledge Age Concerns

Since Mr. Biden can’t lop off a decade, he must acknowledge the concern, and tie it to the decades of relevant policy experience Mr. Trump lacks. Give voters another way to see it.

As for Mr. Trump, many pundits predicted his 34 felony convictions would have little effect on his support, but they appear to be peeling off some of his more reluctant voters in the kind of increments that can make or break an election. So far his strategy has been to claim political persecution and a rigged justice system. His most loyal supporters believe some or all of that, but a recent poll by the left-leaning Data for Progress found that a majority of voters believe the recent guilty verdict was fair.

His attempt to discredit the system is in keeping with his attacks on government institutions, the electoral process and anything else that might hold him accountable or stand in the way of power. Which gets to one of the fundamental asymmetries of this election: Mr. Biden is running against Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump is running against democracy itself. The threat of the latter is so big and so unfamiliar that voters have trouble taking it in. Mr. Trump, however, is running against a conventional candidate, which in some ways makes the story he tells about Mr. Biden easier to swallow.

Another asymmetry: Mr. Biden takes pains to avoid suggesting that Republicans are bad people. He describes his opponent as unfit for the presidency but rarely uses crass personal attacks. Mr. Trump feels no such constraints. He attacks his opponent and his opponent’s supporters alike in the most personal terms. And it works in a way it never could for Mr. Biden because Republicans engage in higher levels of negative partisanship — the vilification of the other team — than Democrats.

Trump May Go After Hunter Biden

Mr. Trump is almost certain to go hard on Hunter Biden’s recent conviction on drug-related gun charges. But personal attacks are an opening for a moving personal response. Mr. Biden could use it to talk about how addiction plagues many American families and the heartbreak parents feel when their children suffer or go astray.

For the same reason messages like that can succeed, messages about the threat that Mr. Trump poses to our nation’s democracy — real though it is — can fail. They seem abstract, especially compared with voters’ day-to-day struggles over the cost of living.

Mr. Biden can and should tout his economic record: Inflation has greatly slowed down (even approaching the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent), unemployment remains low, and consumer spending is robust. But economic metrics alone can’t energize voters who are struggling to afford college, housing and health care. Mr. Biden has to show voters that he is aware of the wider affordability crisis that has been building for decades and that he has a plan to fix it.

Democrats are often very good at talking about how they will strengthen the social safety net for those who are struggling, but not as good as Republicans in explaining how they will make Americans more prosperous and, to invoke a word Democrats use sparingly, wealthy. As a professional rich guy, Mr. Trump has a natural advantage here. Mr. Biden, though, still has an opportunity to explain how his second term would help voters afford not only the basic necessities but also some of the expensive things that contribute to increased quality of life (nice vacations, home upgrades, etc.).

Student loan forgiveness might mitigate anxiety, but ultimately people want to live in an America where college isn’t wildly expensive in the first place. A future marked by prosperity and better overall quality of life is something to get excited about.

Reproductive Rights Will Swing Younger Voters

Reproductive rights is one subject that has been proven to excite each candidate’s base, and it may have a special significance for younger voters who are deciding when or how to start (or expand) a family. Mr. Trump has recently suggested that he has some flexibility on abortion and that he generally supports in vitro fertilization. If so, he will have to explain that to his most hardcore supporters, including white Southern Baptists, who recently voted to oppose I.V.F. For Mr. Biden, there is no downside to leaning into this issue as much as possible. He needs to stop qualifying his support for abortion on a religious basis and framing it as an unfortunate choice that women have to make. It is alienating to young women who believe it bolsters a Republican position and ignores their actual experience.

Mr. Biden has an additional challenge in that he has to explain U.S. involvement in Ukraine and Gaza, which is dominating what people who follow political news see right now. He needs to articulate that one of those commitments involves the need to oppose a hostile foreign power, and the other involves the need to support a longtime ally — yet neither one is static, instead adapting to new developments, including the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. These issues constitute a rare instance of bipartisan overlap, though Republicans and Democrats may have different reasons for supporting them.

Polls are snapshots of public opinion in time and not predictive of later outcomes, so people who say they know today, in June, what will happen in November are somewhere between overconfident and delusional. Regardless, debates present an opportunity for two unpopular candidates to articulate the larger issues that affect all Americans. The format of Thursday’s debate — no crowds, microphones cut when candidates go over their allotted time — will limit the chaos and pettiness. But what will matter most is what each candidate says to members of his own party and like-minded independents. This starts with acknowledging the legitimate concerns voters have — even those who have already made up their minds.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

By Elizabeth Spiers/Thalassa Raasch
c.2024 The New York Times Company
Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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