Joe Biden has been running a uniquely unconventional campaign for president. Throughout America’s modern political era, major party candidates have run campaigns akin to rock-star tours — big crowds, big hype, and a different city every day. Since Biden secured the nomination in March, he has been off the road and on the shelf, effectively far from public view. Even under the cover of coronavirus, his campaign has been lackluster if not lackadaisical.
There are two presumptive reasons for Biden’s approach. The first is that there is little reward; Biden has the race won. The president Is polarizing and unpopular and Biden simply needs no more from a campaign than to not be Trump.
The second is that there is a risk in Biden campaigning extensively. He has struggled on the stump. He has run twice before for president and never come close to winning the nomination. Even in this run’s limited campaigning, he has proven gaffe-prone. Together, these make his risk from campaigning higher than conventional nominees’.
Just over a month before the election, the first presumption is inaccurate by either conventional or current standards. That the first presumption is wrong argues that the second is not.
The presidential race is closer than most imagine. Biden’s lead in the polls has dropped, long gone are the double-digit margins of months ago. According to the Real Clear Politics average (as of 9/23) of national polling, Biden’s lead is just 6.8 points. Considering that Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 %, only to lose the electoral vote decidedly, almost one-third of Biden’s margin is meaningless.
Real Clear Politics’ average of the battleground polls, those that will decide November’s outcome, put Biden’s lead even less. At just 4%, this is within the margin of error for most polls. Hidden Trump voters and the first debate, just a week away, could pull the gap closer still. Biden’s lead is anything but comfortable, even if consistent.
It is also a fallacy that theoretically there is only risk and no reward for Biden to run harder. Other candidates — Obama in 2008, Clinton in 1996, Bush I in 1988, and Reagan in 1984 and 1980 — who won by bigger margins than Biden has now, have also campaigned aggressively right to the end.
Past winners have run hard because just winning is never enough. Presidents want the intangible “mandate” to claim popular support for their agenda in office. Biden has an extremely ambitious agenda and one decidedly to the left. If a president ever needed a mandate, it is Biden.
There is also a far more tangible benefit to maximizing his margin: Congressional support. The House Democratic majorly is not large by historic standards, both Clinton and Obama had larger ones than today’s. Both also lost huge numbers (Obama 63 in 2010 and Clinton 54 in 1994) and their House majorities in first midterm landslides. Biden should be running accordingly.
Even more pressing, Democrats do not hold the Senate. They need to gain at least three seats to give Kamala Harris the chance to break ties as Vice President. In reality, Democrats will need even more seats to have a working majority when their moderates balk on tough votes. Again, both Obama and Clinton lost big Senate numbers in their first midterms, so Biden should be preparing.
Undoubtedly Biden has real reasons to run aggressively. His lead is neither large nor secure, he needs a mandate more than most, and he lacks a Senate majority, while a larger House majority would be good insurance.
All this brings back to mind the second presumption as to why Biden is not running harder. How great is the risk from his campaigning? His unconventional campaign argues that it must be even greater than most have imagined.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.