Why a 'do no harm' general election strategy could work for Joe Biden

Joe Biden's advisers said he will seek to both appeal to persuadable voters and motivate the party's base. PHOTO: NYTIMES

ADAMS, WISCONSIN (NYTIMES) - Nate Zimdars, a Democratic candidate for the Wisconsin state Assembly, arrived at the VFW lodge in Adams, Wisconsin, after marching in the local Independence Day parade, ready to meet voters at an annual outdoor chicken cookout called the "Chic Nic".

Although the event was hosted by the local Republican Party, Zimdars was far from nervous being behind enemy lines. He was eager.

The county flipped from blue to red in 2016, Zimdars noted, which meant it could flip again. Plus, national Democrats had done him a favour: They chose former Vice President Joe Biden for the top of their ticket.

"Biden comes across as someone who's moderate and has experience on both sides of the aisle," Zimdars said. "My close family and friends, who are a little more on the Republican side of the fence, said if Biden became the nominee, they would vote for him."

Such persuasion is at the core of Biden's campaign strategy, designed to bring together moderates, older adults, working-class voters across races and former supporters of President Donald Trump.

The approach has helped him jump out to an early lead in polling, both in national surveys and in swing states like Wisconsin, where Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. It has also helped Biden fend off attacks from Trump, who has sought to cast Biden as a radical progressive despite his lengthy career as a moderate lawmaker.

But if Biden hopes to maintain his advantage as November draws near, Wisconsin Democrats like Zimdars have some advice, akin to the famous medical principle of "do no harm" or the cautionary words of the hit HBO series "The Wire": "Keep it boring."

Being politically milquetoast is Biden's appeal, they said, driving his ability to attract progressives in Milwaukee, moderates in suburbs like Waukesha and more rural voters in places like Adams County, one of the 22 counties in the state that voted for Trump after backing President Barack Obama in 2012.

They don't lament that Biden is not a historic candidate like Obama or Hillary Clinton, or that he lacks bumper-sticker progressive policies like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; they're grateful for it.

After the 2016 election, Clinton was lambasted for running a risk-averse campaign that seemed to rely on voters finding Trump's conduct inherently repugnant. Four years later, facing a changed electoral landscape, many Wisconsin Democrats think Biden can win the state with that exact playbook.

Biden is "the perfect candidate for this area at this time", said Matt Mareno, chair of the Waukesha Democratic Party.

"Trump's whole rallying cry was that he was an outsider coming to fix the establishment, and now he is the establishment," Mareno said. "We're seeing more and more college-educated white voters leaving him, and we're seeing more seniors leave him. We're seeing that coalition just completely dissolved down to the very core base of his support."

Several characteristics inform Biden's strategy, including his lengthy career as a bipartisan legislator, Trump's panned response to the pandemic and Biden's identity as an older white man, the type of politician easily categorised as "presidential".

There are a range of ways Biden can build a general election coalition in a battleground state like Wisconsin.

He could focus on winning back voters in low-population areas, where Clinton suffered big losses in 2016.

He could build on recent Democratic efforts to target the college-educated white voters that Trump has, at times, repelled, particularly in suburban counties like Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, where Clinton outperformed Obama but also lost some votes to third-party candidates.

Or he could seek to motivate reliable Democratic voters like young people, Black voters and Latino voters in Milwaukee, the Democratic stronghold where voter turnout was down significantly in 2016.

Biden's advisers said he will seek to both appeal to persuadable voters and motivate the party's base, mimicking the successful campaign of Sen Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, a progressive who won re-election in 2018 by an eye-popping 10 points. Biden led Trump by 11 points in Wisconsin in a poll by The New York Times and Siena College last month, and more recent polling from other battleground states like Pennsylvania has been even better for him.

Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents Madison, said Biden's campaign had already outpaced Clinton's in terms of investment in and attention to Wisconsin. Pocan said the Clinton campaign "took the purple state for granted", citing both a lack of visits and financial support for down-ballot candidates.

"Donald Trump came and lied to us, but at least he showed up," he said, calling the Democrats' losses in 2016 a "duh moment" for the party. It was Democratic voter drop-off across Wisconsin - not big Republican turnout - that most helped Trump win there, he said.

"When one candidate doesn't campaign and the other one does, you would expect that you might get the results that we got," Pocan said. "But no one will ever make that mistake again."

This does not mean that Biden has avoided scepticism from core Democratic constituencies like young people and progressive minority voters - the same groups that frequently needled Clinton and backed Biden's rivals in the primary.

In fact, the same polls that show Biden securely ahead of Trump also find Biden with tepid numbers among young people and minority voters. His favourability rating decreased in a recent survey by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, driven by shifts among younger Democrats.

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