Coming out of back-to-back national conventions that both parties considered successful, Trump aides said the president is determined to exploit the racial unrest in Kenosha, Wis., and other places where Black Lives Matter protesters have been active to amplify his “law and order” message.
Trump aims to cast Biden and running mate Kamala D. Harris as agents of far-left radicals in a bid to scare suburban White women and other key voters back into the Republican fold. The president plans to press his case Tuesday by visiting Kenosha to meet with law enforcement and survey damage there.
Biden, meanwhile, is trying to carry his summer polling lead into the fall by giving his campaign a fresh jolt of energy, making plans to leave the Mid-Atlantic region next month for the first sustained period since the pandemic forced an end to traditional campaigning in March.
The Republican National Convention’s week-long effort to rebrand Trump as compassionate toward women, minorities and immigrants; to portray the economy as booming and the virus as dissipating; and to stoke fears of socialism and anarchy — despite the fire hose of falsehoods — served as a wake-up call for some top Democrats. They said Biden, a former vice president, needs to be more proactive as a campaigner and aggressive in promoting his economic agenda to avoid being typecast.
“We really just need to hammer on the economics and the complete failure to manage covid,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.). “But we do need him here. We need him to tell that story. And I’m confident that it will happen.”
Levin said he spoke Thursday with a top Biden staffer about planning a visit by the candidate to Macomb County, a perennial swing jurisdiction in suburban Detroit that was critical to Trump’s 2016 victory.
Harris, a senator from California, said at a virtual campaign fundraiser Friday evening, “Michigan is the main event in this fight. We saw it slip to Donald Trump in 2016, and we’re not going to let that happen again. Even if we see polls looking good.”
Both campaigns have trained considerable resources on a half-dozen battleground states: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as Michigan, all of which Trump carried in 2016.
The Biden campaign also believes changing demographics present opportunities in a pair of more reliably Republican states, Georgia and Texas, and also is contesting Iowa and Ohio.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign thinks two states Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — Minnesota and New Hampshire — are primed for pickups. On Friday, in a move to appear on offense the day after their convention concluded, Trump held a rally in New Hampshire and Vice President Pence campaigned in Minnesota and Michigan.
“The road to victory begins in Duluth, Minnesota,” Pence told roughly 200 supporters outside an industrial warehouse there Friday. “We’re going to win the state.”
Minnesota has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972, but it has drawn national attention this summer after the George Floyd killing made Minneapolis the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some Democrats — haunted by Clinton assuming she had a lock on Wisconsin and largely ignoring the state, only to lose it narrowly — privately expressed concern this week about possible softening for Biden in Minnesota, as well as about independent candidate Kanye West, who qualified for the state’s ballot. Biden recently mentioned Minnesota among four states — Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were the others — he plans to visit soon.
With Republicans continuing to mock Biden for not “coming out of the basement,” as Trump put it at a Friday night rally in Londonderry, N.H., some Democrats said the imperative has grown for Biden to loosen his hyper-vigilance about the virus, ditch his mostly virtual campaign strategy and take his case directly to voters in battleground states.
Biden told supporters at a virtual fundraiser Thursday, “We’re going to do it in a way that is totally consistent with being responsible, unlike what this guy’s doing,” referring to Trump. He added, “What we’re working on is how I get out.”
Aides said they are considering a range of event types in compliance with state rules about how many people can assemble — including “drive-in” rallies replicating the one Biden and Harris held in Wilmington, Del., after his acceptance speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention.
“We’re going to try to find ways to give him venues to connect with people to hear what’s going on in their lives,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager. She added, “As we are doing this traveling to battleground states, you’re going to hear him talking a lot about his plans to bring manufacturing and supply chains back to America,” as well as his plan to provide affordable child care.
Republicans have pointed out that many Americans have long ago resumed aspects of their regular routines despite the pandemic, including the millions of people going to work because they cannot do their jobs from home. They have argued that Trump, with his relatively robust travel schedule of in-person events, is reflecting this reality, even if the president’s activities flout social distancing and other health guidelines.
“This is going to force Joe Biden to come out of the basement, so to say,” said Robert Graham, a former Arizona Republican Party chairman. “People don’t just want ‘content.’ They want to see him out there.”
Some Democrats agree. Geoff Garin, a pollster who advises the pro-Biden super PAC Priorities USA, said there are limits to what Biden can do digitally to inspire and turn out voters.
“Campaigns have to be consistent with the way people are living their own lives,” Garin said. “And as they’re starting to venture out more, the candidate running for office has to venture out more as well.”
Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, said continuing protests over racial injustice could work in Trump’s favor politically.
“People who live everywhere are bothered by what they see on TV in these cities,” Murtaugh said. “The people who live in cities don’t want it. The people who live in suburbs don’t want to see it because cities are right next door. And the people in rural areas wonder whether it could happen there. Look, Kenosha, Wisconsin, is not Portland, and it’s not Seattle, but it’s happening in all these places.”
To that end, Trump invoked Thursday night’s demonstration outside the White House in his rally speech in New Hampshire: “Today’s Democrat Party is filled with hate. Just look at Joe Biden’s supporters on the streets screaming and shouting at bystanders with unhinged, manic rage, right? You see it.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said it is critical that Democrats prevent Trump from making law enforcement a political wedge issue, and that she has conveyed as much privately to the Biden campaign. She said she has counted scores of “Blue Lives Matter” yard signs popping up in her suburban Detroit district, giving her flashbacks to Trump’s surprise Michigan win four years ago.
“We cannot let this man own this issue,” Dingell said of Trump. “We have a problem with race, but we can’t let them have law enforcement as an issue. . . . I think Joe Biden has an ability to deal with it, but he has to get out there and deal with it.”
In contrast to Trump, who she said “throws kerosene on the fire,” Dingell recommended that Biden have “uncomfortable conversations” about racial injustice while also recognizing and praising the work police departments do keeping communities safe.
Bedingfield said Biden “believes profoundly that excessive violence against Black Americans is unacceptable. Systemic racism is unacceptable. The socioeconomic inequalities in our society are unacceptable and we need to tackle these challenges and we need to take them on.”
But, she added, “I also think that people know that Joe Biden is somebody who has throughout his entire career been a great supporter of firefighters and has been a great supporter of law enforcement and believes that we need to give law enforcement the resources that they need to be able to do true community-oriented policing.”
Speaking to a virtual gathering of the National Guard Association of America on Saturday, Biden pushed back on Trump’s view of what “law and order” looks like.
“I promise you as president I’ll never put you in the middle of politics or personal vendettas,” Biden told the members of the National Guard, speaking from a podium set up on the first floor of his Wilmington home. “I’ll never use the military as a prop or as a private militia to violate rights of fellow citizens. That’s not law and order. You don’t deserve that.”
The issue of racial injustice resonates elsewhere, including in Florida, where former Republican congressman Carlos Curbelo said continuing protests could cut into what he believes is a Biden advantage in South Florida, which he used to represent, as well as in key suburban and exurban areas around Orlando and Tampa.
“If we have more instances of police brutality or controversial police encounters with people of color and ensuing reactions to that, if we have mass rioting and looting in America’s cities, those images could benefit the president’s campaign,” Curbelo said.
He said many White suburban voters already have concluded “that the president’s style and rhetoric and approach to the job was just too much for them to stomach. But I do think there’s a path for him to win them back, and that path requires demonizing Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris and associating them with the most radical elements of the political left.”
It is too early to fully evaluate the impact of the two conventions on the state of the race. National and battleground-state polls have shown Biden leading Trump by comfortable margins all year. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, conducted Aug. 12-15, just before the conventions, showed Biden with a commanding lead nationally, 53 percent to 41 percent.
But many Democrats have long predicted the race would tighten in the fall as more voters are engaged, and the Republican convention did not dispel them of that notion.
“I think all of the polls we’ve seen are written on the water’s edge in sand,” said Peter Hart, a longtime Democratic pollster. He said the race probably will not harden until after the first debate, scheduled for Sept. 29. “Then we’ll know if people feel comfortable with Joe Biden and are willing to say, ‘It’s time to change,’ or do they end up saying, ‘As much as I hate Donald Trump, I’m uncertain about Joe Biden.’ ”
Over the next 10 weeks, Garin said, Biden needs to “continue building an understanding of the way he’s going to deliver more and better jobs, more affordable health care and a safer world for voters.” He argued that although the coronavirus is an overarching issue, jobs and the economy remain a key driver of how voters think about the election.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said that as Trump continues to offer “fear and smear,” Biden must stay focused on showing voters he can be trusted to lead the country out of the pandemic and to rebuild the economy.
“The virus and the economic calamity is right in front of people every day,” Casey said. “You can feel it, you can hear it in our community. I think the only thing that the campaign has to continue to do is to walk through what the plan is: How do you get people back to work?”