In November, when the worst of the coronavirus pandemic may be behind us, Americans will decide whether a Democrat, Joe Biden, or a Republican, Donald Trump, should be trusted to lead the country into a highly uncertain future. Most people have already made up their minds. But even in a time of partisan polarization, there persists a small demographic of persuadables—the low-information, temperamentally apolitical, ideologically squishy voters who are responsible for fluctuations in presidential approval polls. The perceptions of these voters is the subject of an intense public relations battle between Democrats and Republicans.
You might think that Biden has the upper hand. Surely it cannot be hard to persuade Americans to accept two essential propositions: that Trump and his Republican allies have gravely mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, causing untold death and hardship that could have been avoided; and that Biden, not the corrupt and clueless Trump, should be trusted to lead the economic recovery. Surely the chickens will come home to roost. The problem is that they won’t, unless they’re rounded up and forced into their coop. Republicans have long been better at this kind of work than Democrats. This is because Democrats are terrible at “messaging.”
“Messaging” refers to two separate but interrelated matters. The first is campaign messaging. That’s a short-term effort. Its goal is to win the election at hand. Campaign messages rely on TV ads (to win over persuadables in battleground markets) and social media (to excite the base and infiltrate your opponent’s information community). They are largely the responsibility of the candidate, and they are most effective when they define the stakes of the election in accordance with the candidate’s strengths.
Biden, to the extent that he is visible at all, is terrible at campaign messaging. He doesn’t connect well with his supporters, many of whom minimize their exposure to him for fear of demoralization. Nor does he connect well with persuadable independents. With more than 60,000 American pandemic deaths to date and nearly 30 million jobs lost or furloughed, Biden could frame the election around the critical concerns of ordinary Americans. Nope. In April he devoted two of his biggest ads to defending himself against Trump’s accusations that he is dangerously soft on China and its role in the pandemic. Republican strategists, terrified of substantive electioneering, have decided that Trump’s best bet is precisely to lure Biden into an esoteric, anachronistic, and xenophobic fight about who will stand up to China. Biden has taken the bait. Even by the standards of easily rattled Democratic politicians, his is a remarkably rapid surrender of rhetorical ground.
Trump was able to spook Biden in part because of the second kind of messaging—party branding. This kind of messaging occurs day-in, day-out, regardless of whether there’s an election imminent, and it never stops. Its aim is to make party designation a durable asset for candidates—not only for presidential elections but for the countless other elections that color the political map red or blue. Republicans are good at party branding. Democrats are not, to put it mildly, and thereby cede deep structural advantages to the GOP.
Biden was afraid to look weak on China because Americans have a built-in view of the GOP as the party that does a better job of handling national security. This perception—a six-point advantage in recent polls—makes a significant difference when elections are decided by one or two points. It’s not only Trump who will invoke the Yellow Peril. In a messaging memo that recently came to light, Republican Senate candidates are forcefully advised to “attack China” in relation to the coronavirus crisis. These candidates, too, are exploiting a partisan brand advantage on “national security”—a concept with powerful connotations of strength, patriotism, and fear of the other.