From the Center

Former basketball player and C-list celebrity Dennis Rodman once said that “the only bad press is an obituary”.

Long before Donald Trump began his first political campaign, he had adopted a similar strategy. As far back as 1987, when he published “The Art of the Deal”, Trump argued that it was preferable to receive controversial and even negative news coverage than to be ignored altogether. This approach upended conventional political wisdom, but Trump reasoned that it was easier to turn unflattering coverage into something positive than it was to attract media and voter interest when no one was paying any attention to him at all.

Frequently the target of scathing criticism, Trump dominated the election dialogue throughout 2016, attracting far more news coverage than traditional candidates like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton. Trump then conducted himself the same way throughout his four years as president, so it should be of no surprise that he has approached his post-presidency in exactly the same way. Candidate Joe Biden promised to lower the volume and to not be as omnipresent in the minds and psyches of an exhausted American public. But as we head into the home stretch of this year’s midterm election campaign, Biden is badly losing the battle of public attention to his predecessor. The jury is still out on which of the two men will benefit from that mismatch.

Last week, Biden did an extended sit-down interview with CNN anchor Jake Tapper. This is normally the type of platform that a president can use to drive news for days, and Biden made notable and newsworthy comments on Ukraine, China and a variety of domestic policy topics. But at the same time, Trump continued to aggressively resist the federal government investigation into the confidential documents that he removed from the White House, his legal battles escalated in Georgia, New York and elsewhere, and the January 6 congressional committee held its final public hearing.

It wasn’t a fair fight. By the end of the week, when Biden traveled to Los Angeles only to be overshadowed by a controversy over race relations in that city, the president of the United States had been completely and overwhelmingly eclipsed by his most significant political rival. The various discussions about Donald Trump were certainly not universally favorable, but he thoroughly overshadowed the current Commander-in-Chief just a few weeks before voters return to the polls.

That attention imbalance should favor Biden. Midterm elections are generally seen as referenda on the incumbent president, and almost always end of benefiting the opposition party as impatient voters naturally seek an alternative to the source of their dissatisfaction. So Biden and his advisors have attempted to frame this campaign not as an up-or-down referendum but rather a binary choice between Biden and Trump. As Biden has said many times over the years, “Compare me to the alternative, not the Almighty.”

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Trump has cooperated with that strategy wholeheartedly. He has publicly recruited and supported congressional candidates across the country, speculated about whether he would announce his own re-election campaign before this year’s elections and picked fights large and small with a variety of adversaries throughout the year. Unlike most former presidents, who occasionally venture out onto the campaign trail but largely retreat from the daily partisan brawls, Trump has remained planted firmly at the center of public awareness.

Given Biden’s efforts to make this election a choice between himself and the man he defeated in 2020, Trump’s outsized presence on the campaign trail would seem to be exactly what the Democrats want. Yet Democratic candidates have spent almost no money in their campaign advertising on the subject of Trump and the former president usually only merits a passing mention in their speeches, interviews and news conferences.

The main reason for this is that the party’s strategists believe that abortion rights and other issues that directly affect voters are more valuable to their candidates. So, Democrats from Biden and down have done little to remind voters why the country turned away from Trump in the first place.

They may believe that Americans don’t need to be reminded what they don’t like about Trump. They may think that Trump is doing an acceptable job of providing those reminders without their help. But at a time when Republicans seem to be regaining some lost momentum, ignoring their chief protagonist seems like a risky strategy for Biden and his party as election day draws closer.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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