David Muir was Director of Strategy to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and is on the advisory board of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.
There are two iron rules in American politics. The first is that, in the modern age, it is hard to unseat an incumbent president. The second, and less well-known, is that it is very difficult for a former vice-president to win an election.
Since the Second World War only three incumbent presidents have not been re-elected: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. As for vice-presidents that were elected under their own steam (not counting those who sought election after a presidential death) there are just five out of 45 presidents, and three of the five were in the first 50 years of the republic: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren. In the modern era there has been just two: Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
As this short history shows it is hard to unseat an incumbent president, especially with a former vice-president. And as I travelled to Waterloo, Iowa, in December 2019 it looked as if history was set to rhyme again. Flagging in the polls, Biden looked miserable and that misery was compounded by a clip that went viral of the former vice president berating a voter.
Meanwhile, in a community centre in Waterloo, I watched the then front-runner Pete Buttigieg met with a response normally reserved for English entertainers at the Glasgow Empire, by a group of older Black voters; a portent that despite his natural talent his campaign would struggle as the primaries moved South. Biden was flailing and there was no candidate with the knock out blow – it looked as if the Democrats were headed to a contested convention, further narrowing the odds of a Trump second term.
And then everything changed, suddenly.
Biden – powered by overwhelming support from Black voters in the South - swept the board on Super Tuesday, and perhaps sensing the impending public health crisis, Buttigieg quickly and cannily pulled out, putting pressure on the other candidates to do the same. For once, the Democratic Party had shown a rare outbreak of strategic ruthlessness.
A week later President Trump addressed the nation and confirmed the enormity of the COVID-19 crisis. The economy was shuttered and in just one week, 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefit. The next act of the 2020 election was set.
Locked down at home in May, America could not avert its eyes as the video of George Floyd having the life chocked out of him was replayed endlessly on cable news. Just like the televising of Bull Connor’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ beatings on Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge, brutal racial injustice was beamed into the homes of white suburban voters, and the country was roiled by protests the like of which had not been seen 1968. Unlike 1968, these protests were supported by about two thirds of voters - a bridge had been crossed.
Like 1968, the United States is bitterly divided and scared: scared of coronavirus; scared of crime and scared of each other. This has led many commentators, especially in the UK, to draw comparisons between Nixon’s winning political strategy of that year and Trump’s today. This is a serious misreading of history, because the candidate who is emulating the Nixon strategy of 1968 is not Donald Trump, but Joe Biden.
Contrary to popular recent caricature, Nixon’s ‘68 campaign was resolutely centrist. At its essence his pitch was to bring peace abroad and safety to the streets of the America. He presented the Democratic nominee, vice president Hubert Humphrey, as a failed leader incapable of bringing peace and safety to America. Meanwhile, the segregationist George Wallace was presented as violent extremist who would further inflame grievance. Nixon brought this to life with the help of some of the best modern communication talent a presidential candidate has ever surrounded himself with, as can be seen from these spots. The resonance to today speaks volumes.
Biden’s pitch is the same. His argument is that coronavirus is Trump’s Vietnam – an example of failed leadership. Meanwhile, America burns and it is only Biden that can bring peace to the streets of America. It is for this reason that we will continue to hear Biden conjoining the foreign threat of coronavirus with social unrest – as Nixon did in 1968 - by asking the same rhetorical question: “Do you really feel safer under Donald Trump?”
As we move into the third and final act, the terrain on which the short campaign will be fought looks fraught for the Trump campaign. Poll after poll shows that President Trump lagging on all dimensions with just a narrow – and within the margin of error - lead on the economy. Moreover, the Trump campaign’s secret weapon - his rallies - while still taking part, are a shadow of what they used to be which could prove consequential in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. These rallies in the past have been exceptional in swelling the Trump voter base. Many of the attendees have not voted – or not voted recently – and the data capture allows the Trump campaign to register them and turn them out to vote. Trump took Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania with just 70,000 votes so such innovation could have been crucial in swinging them again. We will find out on election night how constrained the Trump campaign has been.
Meanwhile the Biden campaign is finding its feet on how it can turnout the vote in a time of COVID. The campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon cut her teeth on field operations, and prior to the Biden campaign supported Beto O’Rourke in his Quixotic campaign for the nomination. She now has to figure out how the tools she deployed in field organising for Obama can be adapted to the COVID election of 2020. Supporting the ground campaign from the air will be Mike Donilon, a gifted narrator and political ad maker who has been a long-term collaborator with the vice-president. As TV audiences rise as voters spend more time at home, expect to see considerable investment in this “old” medium.
As for policy, there is an old Washington dictum that “personnel is policy”. And judging by the tight team Biden has surrounded himself with, he will not just run as a moderate, but, if elected, will govern as a moderate. Bruce Reed, who coordinates the policy advice going into Biden, served as vice-president Biden’s chief of staff before running the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and serving in the Clinton White House. Joining Reed, is policy wunderkid Jake Sullivan who is playing an increasingly important role in fashioning a form of progressive nationalism onto Biden’s economic policy.
For now the focus of both teams will be on the forthcoming debates. Past experience suggests that they can be difficult for incumbent presidents to navigate as they seek to justify their record. But at their essence they are an opportunity for voters to confirm the hunch and convictions they already hold about the candidates. How much they change the campaign is harder to determine.
All elections are historic and some or more historic than others. This election is definitely in the latter category. Not just because of COVID, but because it would be genuinely ahistorical for an incumbent president to lose, and to lose to a former vice president. And if Biden it is to do it, it will be by leaning on the playbook of that other historical outlier, Richard Milhouse Nixon.
 The most recent poll on time of writing is the CBS poll. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-trump-wisconsin-opinion-poll-protests/
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.
This post is part of on an ongoing series on the United States Presidential election, 2020. View more.
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