It was an inauspicious start to what’s been billed as the election of a lifetime. Donald Trump aired his grievances at length before a smaller-than-advertised crowd Saturday in Oklahoma. Joe Biden left the Delaware home where he’s been cloistered for months for a quick trip across the Pennsylvania border just a few days earlier.
Yet it was a start.
After three months of little public activity, both candidates have launched their fall campaigns in earnest. Their advisers have started making big ad buys. The outline of the swing state map has taken shape. And amid widespread civil unrest and an ongoing pandemic, the opening stage of what is likely to become one of the most bitter, intensely personal general election campaigns in contemporary history began to unfold.
“Everybody’s just ready to start slugging this thing out,” said Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist in Michigan and longtime adviser to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “It’s going to feel much more like trench warfare, World War I, than anything else … lots of gassing and hand-to-hand combat.”
In Tulsa and in the days beforehand, Trump and his allies signaled the beginning of a scorched earth campaign. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. has posted memes portraying Biden — baselessly — as a pedophile. Trump’s campaign released an ad on Friday depicting Biden as aged and confused, calling him “clearly diminished” and lacking “mental fortitude.” On Saturday, he continued to suggest without evidence that Biden has health issues, saying ‘There’s something wrong with Biden.”
The no-boundaries approach is in keeping with Trump’s smashmouth style. Yet it’s also a necessity for an unpopular president facing an electoral landscape that’s tilted against him. Amid a pandemic that has ravaged the economy and killed about 120,000 Americans, Trump has fallen behind Biden by nearly 9 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, and he lags behind the presumptive Democratic nominee in most swing states. The electoral map has become so treacherous for Trump that his campaign is spending on advertising in states that once appeared safely in his camp, such as Iowa and Ohio.
Trump’s advisers have long believed he could recover if he could drag Biden’s favorability ratings down. Confronting an opponent who is viewed more favorably than Hillary Clinton was in 2016, Trump is laboring not only to depict Biden as mentally unfit – but as an addled tool of the Democratic Party’s most extreme fringe.
The effort to yoke a centrist Democrat to an “unhinged left” was road-tested in Oklahoma, where Trump mocked Biden as “a helpless puppet of the radical left.” Among the lessons of Tulsa, which will inform countless rallies in the months ahead, was that invoking lightning rod progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez draws a more fervent response than criticizing Biden in isolation — and that linking Biden to that wing of the party is Trump’s lodestar.
“He believes that he has to push Biden to the left, and I think that’s correct strategically,” Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican consultant and pollster, said in an email. “If Biden is seen as a centrist, he’ll have an advantage among swing voters who don’t want to support an extremist. But if he’s seen as left-wing ideologically or overtly partisan, swing voters will have a problem with him.”
For Biden’s part, the unofficial election kickoff came just days before Trump spoke in Tulsa, with Biden lacing into Trump over his coronavirus response, then releasing the first major advertising offensive of the general election campaign.
A $15 million, five-week campaign on TV, digital, radio and print, the advertising push will put Biden on the air on national cable and in six battleground states Trump carried in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona.
“We’re playing offense, buying programs like daytime Fox News and NASCAR to get in front of a large volume of Obama/Trump voters,” Patrick Bonsignore, Biden’s director of paid media, said in a memo describing the buy.
Bonsignore said the campaign’s spending on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News is designed “to take advantage of the increase in viewership across cable news during the coronavirus pandemic.”
While Biden is now advertising, there is disagreement among Democrats about how frequently Biden should appear in public, given both public health officials’ concerns about crowds during a pandemic — and Trump’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds.
“Every day that’s not about Joe Biden is a day that Joe Biden wins,” said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “That’s my view. Because if this thing’s a referendum on Trump, he’s going to lose.”
But Republicans — and Trump himself — will continue to goad him to draw him out. Trump’s campaign has been taunting Biden to make more public appearances, a strategy Republicans view as a win-win. If Biden begins to appear in less controlled settings, they are hopeful the events will produce narrative-changing gaffes. If he refuses, they can portray him as fragile and afraid.
“Finally, he’s getting out of his pajamas and getting into his suits and starting talking,” said Bob Jack, chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party. “I want Joe talking. I think that’s great. He can’t string five words together.”
In response to Trump’s taunts about Biden’s vigor, Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesman, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that “Trump just triumphantly announced on national TV that during a pandemic he’s atrociously mismanaged, he ordered federal officials to slow testing to improve his personal optics at the expense of lives. So yes, let’s please talk about mental acuity.”
The heightened pushback is another sign that Biden and the Democratic Party are cranking to life in a recognition that the general election has begun. Biden’s former rivals have helped him raise money — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who once swore off high-dollar fund-raising events. On Tuesday, former President Barack Obama will host a virtual fundraiser for his former vice president, another indication of the increasing urgency of the contest. Allies are also beginning to organize summer grassroots outreach campaigns — telephonically, if not in person — on his behalf.
“We’re starting to get ready to mobilize,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
Despite outraising Trump in May — pulling in nearly $81 million to the $74 million raised by Trump and the Republican National Committee — Biden remains at an overall disadvantage in cash on hand. And Biden is still laboring to connect with young voters, especially those of color. Even a marginal drop-off in turnout in November could alter the dynamics in competitive states.
“I think for different reasons neither one can afford to wait,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean. “Trump because he’s behind and reeling. Biden because he’s been cooped up and knows he still has some negatives and enthusiasm issues and needs to begin to address them.”
Biden, Maslin said, “can’t just show up one day with a running mate.”