The caricature is one that neither Biden’s critics nor supporters recognize — but it’s one Trump continues to promote.
To hear Trump tell it, the former vice president and longtime U.S. senator is “the most extreme left-wing candidate in history.” Biden is going to “abolish the police” and “abolish the suburbs.” Biden is even “against God.”
In lobbing such extravagant attacks on Biden, Trump has concocted a profile of the presumptive Democratic nominee at odds with much of Biden’s personal and professional life — a cartoonish depiction so distant from the reality of Biden that the hits don’t always resonate.
“Generically, can you successfully paint a caricature of your opponent and be rewarded at the polls? Yes,” said Pia Carusone, a Democratic ad maker. “But you can’t just do that without understanding the greater context that the attack is falling in, and we’re in the middle of a health and economic catastrophe and people are very pessimistic about what they’re hearing from candidates and elected leaders.”
The most effective political attacks, said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, are often the ones that heighten an existing concern or voter perception about an opponent.
“There is certainly this notion that a bunch of wizards sit around and come up with this caricature and then spend hundreds of millions of dollars to drive the caricature, but it only really works if there is some kernel of truth to it,” Goldstein said.
For instance, Goldstein added, the criticism of Al Gore as a serial exaggerator during the 2000 presidential race was effective because Gore did have a habit of embellishing or misspeaking — claiming he and his wife were the inspiration for the younger lovers in the 1970 book “Love Story,” or saying that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet” — and his opponents exploited that weakness.
Biden’s lack of discipline as a speaker, combined with his lengthy political career, means the Trump campaign has plenty of potential material on the former vice president, but so far has failed to spin those data points into one or two distinct and negative narratives, Goldstein said.
“The skill is translating a big opposition research book into a coherent theme, and they’ve not succeeded in that,” he said.
Some attacks — including Trump’s recent assertion that Biden is hostile to religion — seem to land far from their intended target.
“He’s following the radical left agenda, take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God,” Trump said Thursday in Ohio. “He’s against God. He’s against guns.”
Asked about Trump’s seemingly incongruous attack on Biden — who was raised Irish Catholic, attended Catholic schools and still frequently carries rosary beads in his pocket — Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh noted that Biden has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood’s political arm and pointed to his positions on issues such as federal funding for abortions and school choice.
“These are things that people with strongly rooted religious beliefs disagree with,” Murtaugh said.
Trump and his team also have repeatedly tried to paint Biden as a radical socialist, despite polls showing that Biden was viewed as relatively moderate within the Democratic primary field.
In part to account for the perception of Biden among some Democrats as insufficiently progressive, Trump allies have taken to portraying him as an empty vessel for the extremist wing of the Democratic Party.
The president has tweeted several times the sentiment that Biden is simply “a Trojan Horse for the Radical Left Agenda.” And a new ad by the Trump campaign ominously warns: “The radical left has taken over Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Don’t let them take over America.”
Murtaugh explained the campaign’s theory of the case: “Joe Biden is a shell of a candidate, and the left knows it and they’re filling him with their ideas.”
Jason Miller, a senior adviser for the Trump campaign, said that regardless of Biden’s record, he has now fully embraced the most liberal tenets of the Democratic Party.
“Biden has adopted the policies of the radical left, and that’s everything from taxes to the Green New Deal to killing millions of American energy jobs to open borders to being soft on crime,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen a Democratic nominee take a leftward lurch after they’ve secured the nomination, but I’m not going to talk him out of it.”
Both Miller and Murtaugh pointed to a new ad from a pro-Biden super PAC, which features Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) touting Biden’s progressive credentials. “Whether it is health care, whether it’s the environment or climate change, whether it’s education, whether it’s in the economy, Joe Biden would be the most progressive president since FDR,” Sanders says in the 30-second spot, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Nonetheless, sometimes even Trump seems unconvinced by his own argument against Biden. Speaking at a rally in Tulsa in June, the president seemed to undermine his claims that Biden would lead the country down a socialist path.
“Joe Biden is not the leader of his party,” Trump told the crowd. “Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left, and he’s not radical left. I don’t think he knows what he is anymore, but he was never radical left.”
The Trump campaign has simultaneously tried to depict Biden as both overly harsh on fighting crime — a reference to the 1994 crime bill that he helped write — and too soft on crime, likely to defund the police and allow protesters to run rampant in the streets.
Trump Facebook ads warn of “dangerous MOBS of far-left groups” rioting and causing “mayhem” across the country. And an ad released last month shows an elderly woman home alone, unable to reach the police as an intruder breaks into her home and attacks her.
“Both things are true,” Murtaugh said. “Joe Biden wrote the law that led to the incarceration of generations of Black men and now he is too weak to stand up to the anti-police extremists in his party.”
Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo said the Trump attacks are so outlandish that they defy credulity.
“When you’re just throwing spaghetti against the wall, and mindlessly creating cartoon versions of characters that don’t exist, no one is going to believe you,” Ducklo said. “Turns out shouting angry lies not based in reality is a pretty bad way to try and distract from your horrific job protecting American lives during a pandemic that continues to spiral out of control on Donald Trump’s watch.”
Carusone said Trump’s attacks are missing the mark in part because they don’t take into the account the deadly coronavirus pandemic — which has left more than 159,000 Americans dead — or the ongoing racial justice protests.
“They seem to be using cheap and easy stuff that could maybe work in a congressional race somewhere where the stakes don’t feel as high, but we’re choosing the leader of the free world and people are suffering the very real consequences of a lack of leadership,” Carusone said.
This is the very contrast the Biden campaign hopes to draw, an adviser said — largely refraining from directly attacking Trump in favor of highlighting stark contrasts between what they say is Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic compared to the promise of Biden’s steady leadership.
Rita Kirk, a professor of political communication at Southern Methodist University, said that in part because of the pandemic, Trump has found himself pivoting from his early attacks on Biden as “Sleepy Joe” to ones more rooted in fear.
“We weren’t really afraid of somebody who was just Sleepy Joe, but we might be afraid of someone who is going to take away our guns,” Kirk said.
Yet fear-based attacks, especially when the public is already fearful amid the pandemic, can also backfire as too much, Kirk said.
The Trump campaign has continued to mount intermittent attacks challenging Biden’s mental acuity — though the president ranks lower than Biden among voters on the issue. A July Fox News poll found that 47 percent of registered voters said Biden has the mental soundness to serve effectively as president while 39 percent said he did not; for Trump, 43 percent said the president was mentally sound versus 51 percent who said he was not.
Yet as Trump and his team have raised questions about Biden’s mental prowess, they have also arguably lowered the bar for Biden’s coming debate performances against Trump.
And so, this week, Trump’s advisers started trying to raise expectations, even if that means undercutting one of their attack lines against Biden.
“Joe Biden is actually a very good debater,” Miller told The Washington Post. “He doesn’t have as many gaffes as he does in his everyday interviews.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.