Candidates, pundits and even voters often try to boil down an election to the choice between the lesser of two evils. After the never-ending campaign, the barrage of negative ads and the constant stream of vitriol, both candidates can be seen negatively. Voters are left to merely pick their least unfavorite.
Republicans have been counting on that strategy to work for them again in 2020. If they had any hope of convincing voters to re-elect a failed incumbent who most believe has taken the country on the wrong track, they had to pull his opponent into the mud too.
Their strategy ran into one problem: Joe Biden.
With Biden, this isn’t a choice between the lesser of two evils. Instead, it’s a contrast between someone who is focused on making himself look good and someone who is committed to actually doing good. Joe Biden is the antidote to Donald Trump. We’ll find out in just a few days whether that’s what America really wants.
It’s not that Trump hasn’t tried to bring Biden down to his level. The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks ad spending and content in the presidential race, shows that August and September ads in support of Biden were more likely to be positive or comparative, while Trump’s advertising was more exclusively negative. And that doesn’t include the digital advertising campaigns and the right-wing media ecosystem that has been dedicated to tearing Biden down.
If you need more evidence that GOP strategy from the start has been trying to tear down Biden, remember — Trump tried to bribe a foreign government into smearing Biden with conspiracy theories as far back as July 2019. That’s why he was impeached.
That strategy hasn’t worked. In fact, Biden’s favorability ratings have increased over the campaign. Americans may have only known him as the vice president before, but this campaign has revealed his character and his commitment to working people. Voters have learned about his plans to expand access to health care and reduce costs. They’ve learned to trust those plans because of Biden’s own family experiences. Voters have seen his commitment to combating the pandemic and they can trust it because they know he puts the facts from medical experts and scientists ahead of his own interest.
Above all else, they’ve seen a fundamentally good man. As low as that bar might seem, Biden is a stark contrast to the man who lives in the White House today. As people have learned more, they’ve liked Joe more.
On the day that Biden clinched the Democratic nomination, his average net favorability rating in the Real Clear Politics average was minus 1.5 percentage points. As of Oct. 28, it had grown to a positive 5.4 points, while Trump’s deep unfavorable rating (more than 12 points underwater) is essentially the same as it was in December 2019.
Quinnipiac’s polling shows Biden’s recent net favorability rating at 5 points (49–44), a marked improvement from minus 3 (45–48) around Labor Day and significantly better than Trump’s current minus 15 (40–55). Similarly, the NY Times/Siena polling now shows Biden’s net favorability at 10 (53–43), while Trump’s is at minus 11 (43–54) — a yawning 21-point gap. Polling at Navigator Research corroborates the difference, with Biden’s net favorability at 7 (52–45) while Trump’s is at minus 14 (42–56).
But this election isn’t simply a simply a rejection of Donald Trump, personally: It’s a rejecting the issues he’s attached to. Whether it’s on climate change (24 points), Social Security and Medicare (12 points) or even on taxes (4 points), voters are more inclined to trust the Democratic Party than the GOP in this election.
The latest from the Pew Research Center reinforces that that Biden is winning on the issues. Compared to Trump, Biden is rated as better able to “bring the country closer together” by 20 points (50–30) and to handle the public health impact of the coronavirus outbreak by 17 points (57–40). Similarly, Quinnipiac found that people think Biden will do a better job on health care by 16 points (55–39) and a better job on handling the virus by 17 points (55–38).
Without an advantage on the issues, Republicans have fallen back on their smear campaigns, resorting to half-baked conspiracies and outright lies. Given Trump’s failed presidency – especially his negligence in combating the pandemic – voters now see an implicit contrast between the self-absorption and chaos of Trump that has consequences in their lives versus the public service and stability of Biden.
To be clear, none of this means that Biden is perfect. People might not agree with him on every issue – or see him as too far left or too far to the center. But, in the end, voters believe he’s doing things for the right reasons, and that’s a tremendous contrast to Trump.
As the closing week continues, Trump and his allies will undoubtedly launch Hail Mary conspiracy theories to try to drag Biden down into the mud pit where Trump thrives. They’ll be desperate to create the “lesser of two evils” scenario and then win that contest.
But time and again, Biden’s shown an almost Kenobi-like quality where Trump and his allies are concerned: When they try to strike him down, Joe becomes even more powerful than you could possibly imagine.
Jesse Ferguson is a veteran democratic strategist, former official for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and former Director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee IE.
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