So here are four policy issues that Democrats are bringing up in the convention and our analysis on whether they’re smart to be talking about them.
1. Health-care coverage
Talking extensively about protecting people’s current access to health care worked for Democrats in 2018 to help them win back the majority in the House of Representatives, and there are signs it can work for Democrats now.
Democratic strategists would argue that this policy issue is even more resonant in a pandemic, and they’re probably right.
Health-care coverage continues to be one of the top issues of concern for Americans, according to a number of polls, and Democrats have a pretty big advantage over Republicans on this. As Trump came into office and Republicans tried to repeal the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, the law became more popular. When they failed to repeal it, it stayed popular. In the last election, House Democrats specifically tried to focus on health care and not Trump.
Lawsuits around the health-care law still abound, and in a big one before the Supreme Court soon that could eliminate the ACA, Trump’s administration asked the justices to do just that, get rid of the entire law — without having a backup, even as the president and Senate Republicans promise (somewhat tenuously, factually) to protect coverage of preexisting conditions.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll out this week finds that voters think Biden would make health care better, rather than worse, by a margin of 13 points.
Tuesday’s convention aired a segment with Biden talking virtually to several families across the country who have recently struggled with major health issues, such as a recent cancer survivor. “The day you got your first chemo,” Biden said, introducing Laura Packard of Denver, “Republicans voted to gut the ACA.” Biden also talked about his son, Beau Biden, who “lay dying in bed” in 2015 of brain cancer and how he wondered what he would do without health insurance.
Health care is certainly a strength for Democrats. But it threatened to be a potential weakness when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a shot at the nomination with his plan for Medicare-for-all. Although polls last year showed a majority of Americans support this in theory, when they hear it would require ending private insurance, support drops.
2. Racial justice
George Floyd’s brother spoke on the first night. In her speech, Michelle Obama brought up Floyd’s and other Black Americans’ deaths at the hands of police.
And instead of one keynote address from a rising Democratic star, on Tuesday the party invited 17 young elected officials to speak, almost all of them people of color. “We have lived the grief of losing loved ones to gun violence and the criminal justice system that unfairly targets our communities,” said Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Ala.
While Biden leads Trump by huge margins on who would improve racial relations (by a margin of 26 points, voters in that Post-ABC News poll say race relations would be better rather than worse under a Biden presidency), if Republicans can turn the conversation away from that and toward safety from crime, it gets murkier. The Post-ABC News poll finds that more Americans think crime could be worse than better under a Biden presidency.
That’s probably why talking about crime is a clear focus for Trump, who regularly brings up protecting “suburban” America from low-income housing.
It has racist undertones, but Trump hopes that he can shift the national conversation away from the systemic racism that Black Americans say is part of their daily lives precisely because of racist perceptions about crime and Black people, and to crime itself.
3. Women’s rights
This is not quite as overt an issue as the others on this list, but it helped Democrats enormously to message it by the fact their convention came on the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
On Tuesday night, delegates from all 50 states and territories cast their votes (virtually) from the primaries and officially nominated Biden. In Tennessee, the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment and enshrine it in the Constitution, delegates talked from a hotel that was a suffragist headquarters. “Women will decide this election,” said college student Keely Sage, “and will replace Donald Trump with a president who respects us.”
She’s right that women are a major factor in the 2020 election. Trump won the White women’s vote in 2016, according to network exit polls, but Democrats retook the House majority in 2018 by winning in increasingly diverse suburbs where female voters are major players. In a recent CBS News poll, 77 percent of women said things are going “very” or “somewhat badly” in this country, and 87 percent of women said they will definitely vote in November. In that poll, Biden leads among women voters by 17 points.
4. Gun control
Suddenly, gun control has the potential to be a winning issue nationally for Democrats.
In 2016, the National Rifle Association spent an astounding $30 million to help elect Trump. But in 2018, gun-control groups outspent the NRA as Republicans lost the House of Representatives. It wasn’t a coincidence that one of the House Democrats’ first pieces of legislation after taking back the majority was a gun-control package that expanded background checks. Now, even better-funded and organized gun-control groups are getting ready to spend big again in 2020, while a weakened NRA deals with legal troubles.
Biden wasn’t the most hardcore gun-control Democrat running for president, according to a Washington Post analysis of where the 2020 candidates stood. But he still embraces the main policies these activists support.
The Democratic National Committee wants to convey that it does, too. On Wednesday, a speaking spot will go to prominent gun-control activist Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head while serving as a congresswoman from Arizona and helped launch a group aimed at stopping gun violence. Her husband, Mark Kelly, is running for U.S. Senate in Arizona and could help Democrats win back the majority.
And when Texas Democratic delegates cast their votes Tuesday night, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D) of El Paso spent her few seconds on air talking about the recent massacre there. “A year ago, my safe community of El Paso was targeted by a domestic terrorist who murdered 23 innocent people, injured 23 more, and devastated all of us.”
Trump has tried to argue, falsely, that Biden is “against guns," but Democrats don’t seem to be worried about that sticking.