The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden vs. Trump is a contest between breadth and depth

President Trump, at left, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
President Trump, at left, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. (AP)
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Rahm Emanuel is a former mayor of Chicago, White House chief of staff and Democratic congressman from Illinois.

The Trump and Biden campaigns are fueled by dramatically different strategies, and the Democrats’ path to victory depends on appreciating the distinction.

President Trump is focused squarely on depth. After prevailing in 2016, he’s never changed course. From the moment he rode down that gaudy escalator in 2015, through his inaugural address about “American carnage,” through his decision to call neo-Nazis “very fine people,” he’s gone way beyond dog whistles. He has purposefully worked to send Democrats into fits of rage because he knows nothing does more to delight the voters who cast ballots for him in 2016 and millions of similar voters who did not show up.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden has embraced an entirely different approach — one centered on breadth. He won the nomination by refusing, despite fervor on the left, to abandon the core of his identity — namely his impulse to reach out both to his right and left in search of common ground. By inviting remarks from John Kasich, Colin Powell, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and so many people in between, the Democratic convention demonstrated Biden’s belief in building coalitions so diverse they would struggle to fit beneath a Barnum & Bailey big top.

Set aside the national popular vote, which Democrats are likely to win because Trump has mobilized Democrats in cobalt-blue states as never before. The outcome of this election hinges on a handful of swing states. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, White working-class citizens constituted 67 percent, 62 percent, and 62 percent of nonvoters in the 2016 election, by one estimate some 4.8 million voters. That is the core threat Democrats now face. It means that the pool of potential new Trump voters is very deep.

Fortunately, just as Trump has new voters to mobilize, Biden does as well. Since 2016, suburban women in swing states have stampeded into the Democratic Party. Older voters, for years a strength of the GOP, are likely to vote en masse for Biden. Latino voters could play an outsize role. And if the outcome of the South Carolina primary is indicative of enthusiasm in the Black community, the Democratic ticket will outperform its reach from 2016.

Trump’s challenge is to find ways to excite his base without driving voters who already find him offensive into Biden’s camp — and that is likely to be very difficult to do.

Biden’s challenge is to continue to broaden his coalition so that it negates the new voters Trump is able to excavate from the depths of his aggrieved base. Every decision the Biden campaign makes needs to be understood through that prism. If Trump’s rage and rants against establishment elites prompt more of his voters to come to the polls this year, Biden will need a strong result from what I call the “Metropolitan majority”: voters in cities and suburbs. And while Democrats may be able to pull some additional support out of constituencies that generally support our candidates, Biden will need to win additional suburban and college-educated female votes, as well.

None of that is to argue that Democrats should ignore Trump’s provocations. But it does suggest that we focus on issues that will expand our appeal to the women (and some men) who have grown to dislike Trump, but are susceptible to believing that a Biden presidency might point the country to a political extreme.

In addition to talking about climate change, we should focus on clean air and clean water. Rather than speaking about infrastructure in general, we should focus on shortening daily commutes and reducing traffic. Beyond promising to address the burden of student debt, we should focus on expanding quality education across the board. Biden’s convention speech was effective because it not only reintroduced him to the voting public but also went a long way toward inoculating him from the claim that he’s a radical. But Trump will keep trying to make that case.

Both nominees have arrived at strategies that accurately reflect their best chances of winning. Biden could never have relied on the depth of a single constituency — simple demographics dictate that Democrats build a coalition. Trump’s divisive record precluded him from any hope of building a coalition. The president’s only real hope of earning a second term rests on provoking Biden into a fight that frames the Democrat as a man of the far left.

In the heat of any given moment, Biden supporters can’t forget that. Satisfying as it might be to take the bait, Democrats need to resist the temptation to fight this campaign on Trump’s terms.

The Biden campaign has, so far, displayed remarkable discipline. Kamala D. Harris, our vice-presidential nominee, excites every wing of the party, moderate and liberal together. The ticket together appeals to all stripes of Democrats, as well as fallen-away Republicans. It is a big and likely game-changing coalition. And the key to victory depends on building breadth alongside breadth.

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