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From the Center

Last Friday was the first day of the general election campaign.

Donald Trump announced his candidacy over a year ago and has been attacking Joe Biden on policy and personal grounds ever since. Biden set up his own campaign headquarters last summer and has been raising money, running ads and taking potshots at Trump with increasing frequency and ferocity. But until late last week, the two men were essentially shadow-boxing, both making harsh statements about the other in two parallel universes that had not yet intersected.

On the eve of January 6, though, Biden used the three-year anniversary of the Capitol riots to frame his central case against Trump, that the former president represents a fundamental threat to democracy. Biden’s campaign pulled out all the stops, taking their candidate to Valley Forge to evoke George Washington’s speech to his troops during the revolutionary war, sending both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris out for follow-up speeches in the first Democratic primary state of South Carolina, and releasing a series of hard-hitting ads going after Trump on the same subject.

Barring a monumental upset, a Trump conviction or a Biden health episode, the general election campaign is now underway and will continue non-stop for the next ten months. If voters are unenthusiastic and exhausted now, just imagine what they’ll be like by November.

Last weekend was our first opportunity to watch the two campaigns directly respond to each other and to get a sense of what both camps feel will be their strongest arguments in the months ahead.

Trump’s approach is typically scattershot, marked by pre-scripted attacks on policy (immigration, crime, social issues) and off-the-cuff slaps at Biden personally (age, infirmity, and for the first time, mocking Biden’s childhood stutter). The personal hits will excite Trump’s base, while the criticism of the incumbent’s record on crime and immigration issues will appeal to swing voters. But Trump has also enthusiastically joined the debate over democracy, attempting to turn the tables on Biden by accusing his successor of weaponizing the Justice Department to pursue legal retribution against Trump and his allies. At his public events on January 6, Trump referred to those who’d been arrested in the Capitol riots as "hostages" and seems to have determined that seizing the offense in this argument can be helpful in motivating his supporters in the same way that his own multiple trials have done.

Most noteworthy is the seminal strategic decision that Biden and his campaign have made to prioritize the discussion of democracy as the centerpiece of his re-election campaign. It is obviously a critical topic but can also be a somewhat esoteric one, and the president is already hearing from his allies that he should be focusing on more tangible issues relating to the economy and maximizing his political advantage on the issue of reproductive rights. Biden will obviously talk about the economy, abortion and other policy matters that directly impact the voters’ lives. But he and his team have calculated that while emphasizing such an abstract concept does have some risks, reminding voters of the danger that Trump presents to the nation’s democratic underpinnings can remind them of the aspects of Trump’s conduct that they find least appealing.

Political professionals generally agree that voters respond most strongly to the type of kitchen-table issues that practically affect their lives on a daily basis. But Biden is not getting the credit he believes he deserves for the nation’s economic growth and, despite improving voter attitudes, that key issue may be a jump ball at best for his re-election campaign. Polls show that the swing voters who decided the 2020 election largely reject Trump’s explanation for January 6 and many of his other legal challenges. So public opinion will be on Biden’s side if he can find a way to elevate these topics in the voters’ minds over the next several months.

But this is an immense risk. A traditional campaign would hammer home messages on abortion, prescription drugs and other policy areas that voters think about every day. But Trump obviously presents atypical challenges, and Biden’s team has decided that a broader and more conceptual discussion can get at his weaknesses in a way that a conventional policy debate would not.

If it works, their gamble will be hailed as a political stratagem for years to come. If not, Biden will be remembered as the man who removed Trump from the White House – and then put him back there.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

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 Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images via The Guardian