Election Insight: Democrat Perspective
What are former Vice President Joe Biden’s chances to win the presidency in November? What will his priorities be if he’s the next commander in chief?
To get the Democratic perspective, GLG spoke with Matthew Butler, COO of the DC Bar and former Chief of Staff at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Below are a few select excerpts from our broader discussion.
Where do you see things standing coming out of the Democratic National Convention?
Overall, Biden is in a strong position to win the presidency. Biden is coming off a weird but compelling convention. The Democrats did a good job coming up with a strong narrative and drew incredibly clear contrast between Biden and Trump. The picture they repeated was that Biden is a good and decent person; we’d be in good hands with him as president. He gave a strong speech. He presented himself as president-in-waiting. People compared it to a State of the Union address, with many saying it was the best speech that Biden’s ever given. Interestingly, he never said Trump’s name once.
Former President Barack Obama broke with tradition with such a direct attack on Trump. This allowed Kamala Harris in her speech to just do a bio of herself and present herself in an affable, competent way, when typically, the VP nominee has to be the attack dog. Obama allowed Harris to come out of the gate with a positive message. She has been well received so far. The campaign raised around $26 million the day after she was announced.
Trump was highly disliked before coronavirus and he’s slightly more so now. What we’ve seen from him for the past four years is that he cares only about himself. He’s not doing a particularly good job. Democrats were consistent with their message and were careful. They focused on Trump, the job he’s doing, and his character. They did not go after his supporters, which was different from in 2016 — remember Hillary Clinton’s comment about “deplorables”? This year, it’s really just about Trump, which could pay dividends for Biden.
How will the pandemic affect the campaign?
Overall, a COVID campaign benefits Biden. Trump wants rallies and adoring crowds. He wants the focus on spectacle, not on substance. That’s not where Biden excels. Biden’s great in one-on-one or in town hall settings. Also, Biden’s not the youngest guy, and presidential campaigns are grueling affairs. Being able to stay mainly in Delaware and connect virtually is to his advantage. His convention speech was particularly important for him to do it just to the camera and not with an audience, because it was a heavy speech in parts. I don’t think it would have worked in an arena. There were not a lot of applause lines. You would have had 40,000 people bummed out on national TV, and that visual would not have been great.
How does polling look state by state?
Rolling into the convention, the three most important states that Biden must get back if everything else stays the same were Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton lost by little more than 38 electoral votes. Biden’s got about a 5.7% lead in Pennsylvania, 6.7% in Michigan, and 6.5% in Wisconsin. Those are all down as much as two points from where they were in late June. There’s good news for Biden in Florida, where he’s about five points up on Trump. If Biden can win Florida and its 29 electoral votes, he’ll be in good shape. He would then have to add only one out of Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin.
The other interesting number to look at is the delta between the final polling averages in 2016, where in all those states Clinton was winning but ultimately lost. So even though these numbers look favorable for Biden, I do think that there’s a chance that the polls will not be representative of the final tally. Biden still has a lot of work to do in these places. I don’t think that Trump will perform quite as well because he’s been shedding votes, but there is a big delta between the poll numbers and what Trump’s performance will be.
What demographics are shifting, specifically groups that don’t particularly poll well?
In 2016, Trump won white voters by about 20 points. In the latest polling, Trump’s winning those voters by only about 7 points. Trump won men by 12 in 2016, and now he’s leading by only 4. White noncollege women is a group that Trump won by 27 points in 2016 — he’s up by only 17 now. Trump won with white noncollege men by 48% in 2016; it’s down to 32 now. Trump won seniors by 7 in 2016. Now Biden is winning that group by 7. All of that taken together is part of the reason that Biden had this big upswing. Clinton was up nationally 3 to 4 points right before the election, so Biden’s roughly double that now. That’s before we’ve seen if there will be a bounce out of the convention. [Ed note: this interview was conducted August 21, 2020, one day after the Democratic Convention.]
A big issue across the board for so many Americans is around reopening schools. As we think about the polling numbers with women, how will that translate?
The main polling number that sticks out in my head is that 65% of Americans favor getting the virus under control over opening schools. People are still very afraid of the virus. They don’t want their kids to go to school. We needed an organized federal response to this crisis, and Trump has not delivered. There’s disapproval of his handling of it, with around 70% of people thinking he’s handling it in a bad way. It’ll be a bad issue for Trump. Biden did a good job presenting a calm, steady, organized model of leadership. The polling on coronavirus and wanting to get things open in an organized, safe fashion will favor Biden as we get closer to the election.
What are your thoughts on the latest fundraising numbers?
Trump has been getting ready for this race for four years, and Joe Biden had to cut through a field of about 25 different candidates. It was a big fight, and his fundraising was not particularly successful through the primary race. But things have certainly picked up since he secured the nomination. In May and June, Biden and the DNC beat Trump and the Republican National Committee (RNC). Trump got that back in July. Biden and the DNC raised about $140 million in July, while Trump and the RNC raised about $165 million. The most important number to look at, though, is the cash on hand. Biden has basically gotten the Democrats’ war chest to an even point in four months.
But does the money even matter anymore? In 2016, Clinton spent about $1.1 billion on her campaign. Trump spent about half of that: $650 million. In the 2020 primary through Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders spent about $55 million on TV, while Biden spent about $15 million. Biden, as we know after South Carolina, wiped out Sanders in all the states that mattered. The dollars don’t necessarily go to polling and electoral success. We’ll see if it even matters.
We’ve talked a lot about Biden’s strength and his path to victory. How does President Trump win this election?
The electoral college system is skewed against Democrats because they have huge polling advantages in big states and smaller deficits in small states. Those small states can rack up a lot of electoral votes for Trump, even with small margins of victory. Other than that, there could be a major Biden gaffe, and it would have to be something that shows mental impairment and that he’s not fit to be president. The debates will be a test for Biden. Three 90-minute intense sessions against Trump, an intimidating guy. Biden will be able to handle it, but there is potential for Biden to make a major mistake, which would be a benefit for Trump.
There also is a large program of systematic voter suppression in this country. We’ve seen secretaries of states and Republican-controlled states wiping large numbers of voters off the rolls. There’s the situation with the post office taking sorting machines offline and purposely slowing down mail traffic. That could trap a lot of mail ballots, which could impact Biden’s performance. Polling places could be shuttered in high-Democratic-performance areas, creating long lines. If people can’t wait, they don’t vote.
What’s coming up on the calendar?
There will be three presidential debates in the fall: September 29, October 15, and October 22, in Cleveland, Miami, and Nashville, respectively. The vice-presidential debate will be on October 7 in Salt Lake City. What’s interesting about this is early voting in some of the earliest states starts in September. A large portion of the populace will vote before debates even take place. In ’16 and ’18, the percentage of early voters was up to about 40% of the electorate. Now with COVID and concerns about attending polls in person, that number will probably go north of 50%.
What are the key policy priorities for a potential Biden administration?
Build Back Better is the main theme of Biden’s approach. It’ll be economic focused. Part of that will be to address the climate crisis, with a lot of innovation and infrastructure and green energy investments, creating millions of good-paying jobs and union jobs. Biden has been talking about trying to level the playing field economically. There’ll be a pretty significant tax implication to that. He’s already talked about increasing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, a minimum 15% corporate tax, and bringing back the individual income tax rate of a bracket of 39.6, so basically rolling back a lot of those 2017 tax cuts. Then infrastructure and economic recovery, tax reform, and a ton of work on health care. He’s been clear that we need a public option. A Biden administration would reduce the Medicare age to 60. He’ll enhance the Affordable Care Act and increase subsidies. There’ll be prescription drug reform.
Those are the main areas Biden will tackle right away, with a unified and massive effort to push back on COVID-19 and get it under control, because none of the other stuff can really happen until then.
About Matthew Butler
Matthew Butler has over 20 years of experience as a senior executive, consultant, and attorney. He is currently the Chief Operating Officer of the DC Bar and is a Principal at BCT Consulting Group, an events and logistics consulting platform. From April 2015 to December 2016, he was the Chief of Staff to the Democratic National Committee. He spent four years at Media Matters for America in a series of escalating roles, ending as Chief Executive Officer. He has served as campaign manager in a number of campaigns, including Senator Chris Dodd’s presidential campaign, Senator Maria Cantwell’s 2006 reelection campaign, and John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
This article is adapted from the August 21, 2020, GLG teleconference “Presidential Election Forecast: Democratic Perspective.” If you would like access to this teleconference or would like to speak with Matthew Butler, or any of our more than 700,000 experts, contact us.