Why the next six weeks could be the critical stretch of the 2024 election

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Super Tuesday and President Joe Biden’s coming State of the Union are serving as the cues this week for campaigns and the media to declare the official start of the general election.

It’s the matchup voters have dreaded the most, and yet, they are going to get it. The negativity both in paid and unpaid media is going to be sky-high. This isn’t going to be an election for the faint of heart: It’s going to be nasty, it’s going to be personal, and violence is more probable than most would want to admit. In short, it’s going to be the most anticipated contentious election since at least 1968 — and I use “anticipated” because both the 2000 and the 2016 elections became contentious only in the aftermath.

By the time the two campaigns are done pummeling each other, I suspect Trump supporters are going to assume Biden is at death’s door, while Biden supporters are going to assume the Constitution will be suspended the day of a second Trump inauguration.

The real question, of course, is which negative attacks will actually stick in the minds of voters who aren’t hard partisans and aren’t predisposed to assume the worst about both candidates. What we do know is that these swing voters don’t like former President Donald Trump’s personality or character and they are concerned about Biden’s physical abilities (which may also really mean they have a confidence issue in Vice President Kamala Harris).

The next six weeks should tell us a lot about how much a paid anti-Trump media campaign can move Biden’s numbers. Given the financial advantage Biden enjoys over Trump, it would be malpractice if the Biden campaign didn’t try to press that advantage immediately. Right now, this campaign has a “referendum on Biden” vibe to it, a fairly natural occurrence at this point in an incumbent’s re-election effort. The challenger — in this case Trump — is the one constantly on the trail and in the news, and his victories are giving him a bit of a “winner’s” halo effect that many a presumptive nominee has enjoyed.

Just ask Presidents Dukakis, Romney and Kerry how long that lasts, though. All had moments when they appeared to have successfully made the campaign about the other guy (and their party). That is, until the incumbent’s campaign had its say and started to spend its money.

We are about to find out how good the Biden paid media machine is. One thing I’m curious to see is how it goes after Trump on character and his legal issues. Is a persuasion message necessary on the legal front, or is this one of those issues about which you either think Trump brought all of this on himself or you think it’s simply politics? Are there attacks that will resonate more with voters about Trump’s actions in office? Does the Biden campaign need to do its own version of a Trump history lesson — of what he did and didn’t get done in office?

As I’ve written before, it’s pretty clear most Americans have memory-holed a lot of things before and during Covid, not just Trump’s erratic behavior as president. The pandemic’s impact on our collective long-term memory has been fascinating to sort through in our own lives. There could be an opportunity for voters to re-remember what they didn’t like about Trump’s presidency pre-Covid but have blocked out in the ensuing years.

While there may be a lot of areas where Biden’s campaign could focus its negative attacks, not every area will work. Some issues fire up the Democratic base more than the skeptical moderates.

In general, Jan. 6 seems to be something that Trump has yet to fully wriggle out of when voters are reminded of his role. He has gotten his base to re-remember a lot of things about his life, but so far, he hasn’t been able to successfully erase Jan. 6 from the collective voter memory. So I expect that day to be used symbolically throughout the Biden re-election campaign as a regular touchstone.

One thing the Biden campaign shouldn’t rely on is an assist from criminal trials as a way to remind folks of Trump’s bad behavior as president. As I stated before, the only trial that might penetrate the less-polarized public is the Jan. 6 trial brought by special prosecutor Jack Smith — but the likelihood of that trial’s starting before November is now in doubt.

As for the Trump campaign, in theory, it has the easier job playing full-time challenger. In the primaries, Trump didn’t mind running as “President Trump,” because it allowed him to bully the party to get behind him. He called in every favor (even ones that didn’t belong to him) to orchestrate the Super Tuesday coronation. That’s what incumbents can do inside their own parties. But now he’s a full-time challenger, and he’s better off acting like a “former” than a “sitting” if his goal is to keep this campaign a referendum.

One of the hallmarks of Trump’s campaigns, both in the past and now, is his ability to project his own weaknesses on his opponent. One of the more effective hits on Trump is to portray him as a chaos agent, unable or unwilling to prevent, say, a Jan. 6 protest from turning into a full-on insurrection. Of course, Trump knows this — which is why he regularly portrays the border or things happening overseas as “chaotic” or “out of control” on Biden’s watch.

I’m curious to see how Biden’s team navigates this attempt at inoculation. One of the great challenges it has is convincing the middle of the electorate to vote for Biden a second time, arguing that this time, the chaos Biden pledged to put behind the nation in 2020 will truly end. Will these voters believe that? Do they give Biden credit for trying to turn the temperature down and instead hold Trump accountable for intentionally disrupting things for disruption’s sake?

Of course, everything else could be moot if abortion access is the defining issue for the fall. Of all the Trump’s vulnerabilities, abortion is the one policy issue he has yet to find his sea legs on, and it could be the vulnerability that matters most.

So while I have a good idea of what the negative campaign between Biden and Trump is going to look like, I admit I’m struggling to envision how either is going to be able to credibly convince the exhausted middle that his victory will finally press pause on the chaos.

Despite the power of negative partisanship, I still believe optimism is something voters crave — but it has to be believable optimism. Biden is more comfortable pivoting to an optimistic vision than Trump, whose manufacturer setting is pessimism. It’s what has given him his political power. And while Trump can turn on a used-car salesman type of charm every once in a while, is it credible enough to convince a skeptical public that a second term of Trump would be somehow less chaotic and less disruptive than the first term? Especially when more disruption is exactly what Trump’s base wants? This is what makes Trump’s challenge to win over the final slice of persuadable voters so much harder than Biden’s.

One gets the sense Biden would prefer calm — and Trump would prefer chaos. Voters usually sniff this out, but the question is what these voters really want. What do voters want America to look like on Jan. 21, and what does each once and future president plan to do to keep the country together if he actually wins? What does the day after tomorrow look like? It’s now up to the campaigns to tell us.

How media can shape perceptions 

As many of you know, I think the phrase “media bias” is fairly outdated because all humans are born with original bias, meaning all media has a bias. The question is whether that bias is ideological or temperamental. I try to look at politics the way anthropologists study a civilization they have encountered, not as an advocate. Plenty of media these days is authored more by advocates than anthropologists, but then again, if the business is about clicks, then we know what’s winning out.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out an obvious example of how media can shape perceptions: the Michigan protest vote against Joe Biden.

There were two competing headlines out of Michigan that were both factually accurate:

  • “Uncommitted” received just over 13%, with Biden eclipsing more than 80% of the vote.
  • Over 100,000 Michigan Democratic primary voters voted uncommitted to protest Biden’s refusal, so far, to call for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza.

Amplifying the total number of votes was a clear decision to shield readers and viewers from the fact that a huge majority voted the other way. In isolation, 100,000 votes sounds like a lot … but 100,000 votes out of nearly a million is different from 100,000 votes out of 300,000.

The bottom line: In a race that might be decided by fewer than 100,000 votes in Michigan, the number could be significant. But if the question is whether Gaza is a political problem right now outside Michigan, the results indicate that it isn’t. It’s not something to ignore, and it’s certainly a political concern for Biden — and I also believe that if there is still a hot war in Gaza come the fall, this issue will metastasize outside of one congressional district in one state.

For now, though, the anthropologist in me believes the more accurate portrayal of what happened in Michigan was to show the percentages, not the raw vote. It’s a fairer representation of what happened.

Hobbyhorse alert: Who owns sports?

The reason I think this is a relevant question is that college and professional sports are an important public good to create and maintain vibrant local communities. Sports franchises and college sports programs would have no value without the fans, and yet, they have zero say in what happens to the future of these entities — whether it’s the local NBA/NHL owner playing one bucket of taxpayer money (say, Washington, D.C.) against another bucket of taxpayer money (Virginia) or the commissioners of the Big 10 and the SEC trying to rig the college football playoff in their favor.

If the Big 10 and the SEC have their way, they would create a system that would overly reward their members with playoff spots, which in turn would rig the recruiting process away from schools outside those two conferences. They are trying to starve out the ACC, the Big 12 and everyone else.

What ticks me off is that these entities think they have a right to call these shots — that somehow they did something to create the value of the system they are trying to rig.

I’m not naive — money talks and everyone else sulks. But I do think elected officials on every level ought to stop enabling folks who have used taxpayer money to build their own wealth — especially among pro sports owners, but also among these major college programs and conferences.

Ultimately, there’s a way for everyone to create both more wealth and opportunity and also benefit the maximum number of people in their communities. Most pro sports owners think they own their teams. I disagree; they simply had the cash to pay the initiation fee to join one of the most exclusive country clubs on the planet. But the value of a team depends on whether the community and the owner see eye to eye.

I don’t see the owner of a sports franchise as the equivalent of an owner of a business that makes something like cars. The specific car (or pick your widget) was a proprietary invention of said company. An NBA team’s value comes from whether the league as a whole is healthy and popular and whether the community cares about the team or the league.

I do hope more communities learn to treat public funding to lure sports franchises a lot differently from how they view using public funding to lure factories. And FWIW, I think the values of all homes and businesses in Northern Virginia will suffer if downtown Washington is gutted by the departure of its current arena tenants.

Northern Virginia won’t benefit in the long term next to a city’s downtown that isn’t vibrant and thriving. Don’t believe me? Ask the folks who live in the suburbs of St. Louis what happens when a downtown gets gutted. When a downtown is emptied out, everyone in the larger metro area suffers.

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