Trump is still trying. At his first rally since the coronavirus outbreak began, the president cast Biden as a “helpless puppet of the radical left” and misleadingly claimed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was spearheading Biden’s environmental policy.
“I just don’t see suburban voters buying in on that,” said Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. “We just had a Democratic primary campaign where everybody on the left attacked Biden. That’s still fresh in people’s minds, in addition to the fact that over the past 30-plus years he was in the Senate and vice president, I don’t think anyone mistook him for being a leading, confrontational progressive.”
There is at least one cause for hope for Trump in the poll: Forty-one percent of voters agreed with the statement that Biden is “more liberal than me,” and 20 percent didn’t know or had no opinion on the matter, meaning that they may be persuadable.
But roughly the same percentage of voters said they didn’t know or had no opinion on whether Trump was more liberal or conservative than them. And four months from the general election, it is clear Trump’s attempts to label Biden as a pawn for the left wing have largely been unsuccessful so far.
Republican strategists said that’s because Trump hasn’t pressed the issue yet in TV ads. They said Trump could air spots honing in on the fact that Ocasio-Cortez is the co-chair of a “unity” task force focused on climate change that was set up by Biden and Bernie Sanders in hopes of mending rifts within the Democratic Party. The panel, also led by moderate John Kerry, will make policy recommendations to Biden and the Democratic National Committee, but they are not binding.
“Joe Biden has basically handed over the economic, environmental policy to AOC. He’s publicly done that. So I think when people become more aware of how he easily just handed over a significant account of the economy to a social lefty, I think it’ll be easier to convince voters that Biden is not as moderate as he appears today,” said Bryan Lanza, an aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “When voters start paying attention to this race, which historically has been closer to the election, then you’ll see some of these messages start to penetrate.”
Ali Pardo, deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, cast doubt on the survey’s findings.
“As we all know, public polling has been historically wrong about President Trump,” she said. “Americans can see that the radical left has been causing violent unrest in cities across the country while the response from leading elected Democrats has been to call for defunding police departments. Joe Biden is too weak to stand up to them.”
Biden has said he opposes defunding police.
But even Trump seemed to acknowledge the uphill battle he is facing. At a rally in Tulsa, Okla., he said Biden is “not radical left — I don’t think he knows what he is anymore, but he was never radical left.” He argued instead that Biden is “not the leader of his party” and is a tool of progressives.
While Trump savaged Hillary Clinton in 2016 as an ethically compromised, out-of-touch establishment figure, he has struggled to find a clear and consistent line of attack against Biden.
The reelection campaign has gone after Biden on an array of issues. It is currently running a TV ad questioning Biden’s mental acuity and calling him “diminished.” It has also run commercials casting Biden as overly cozy with China and spots saying Biden’s work on the 1994 crime bill “destroyed millions of Black lives.”
Republican operatives said they are eager to find a way to tear down Biden and that Trump needs to turn this into a choice election as opposed to a referendum on his presidency. But with the coronavirus and protests against police brutality dominating the news, it’s been hard for the Trump team to gain traction. Surveys show Biden leading in multiple battlegrounds, and the president has been forced to play defense in traditionally Republican states like Georgia and Arizona.
Trump aides have settled on two main arguments against the former vice president: That he’s beholden to liberals who want to weaken law and order and that he’s an out-of-touch Beltway insider.
Senior Republicans also concede that Biden is a more well-liked figure than Clinton and harder to pigeonhole. And elected officials and strategists in both parties said Trump’s game plan to convince voters that his opponent is a puppet of the far left would likely have been more successful if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren had won the nomination.
But with Biden as the presumptive nominee, “for Trump to try to label him as a card-carrying member of red-rose Twitter is absurd,” said John Fetterman, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.
Progressives tried to nudge Biden to the left throughout the primary. Instead of tacking to the center, Biden has taken the unorthodox step of adopting a handful of more progressive policies since he effectively wrapped up the primary, a sign that he wanted to heal divides in the party that contributed to Clinton’s loss in 2016.
For instance, Biden in April backed plans to forgive federal student loan debt for those earning up to $125,000 annually and lower the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60. But those proposals don’t go nearly as far as progressives who support “Medicare for All” and complete loan forgiveness would like.
Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant, said Biden has done Trump’s job for him because he “has consistently moved further and further left.” But he suggested that there is a more promising approach that Trump, who polls show is trusted as much or more than Biden to handle the economy, can pursue.
“Ultimately the best strategy is going to be laying out to the American people his plan for getting us back on track economically,” he said.
As of now, a larger percentage of voters said they view Trump as very conservative (43 percent) than see Biden as very liberal (32 percent).
Along with attempting to persuade centrist voters that Biden is not one of them, Trump’s strategy is also an effort to divide the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party by forcing Biden to distance himself from left-wing elected officials such as Ocasio-Cortez.
But that doesn’t appear to be working. Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement to POLITICO, “The president’s attacks are failing because they’re hollow. For as much as Trump claims to hate socialism, he loves giving government handouts to his wealthy friends.”
Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said, “Donald Trump has poured more effort into lying about Joe Biden than he has into repairing the damage from his botched response to the worst public health crisis in over 100 years.”
In Pennsylvania, the GOP tried to paint several Democratic candidates, including Fetterman, as socialists in 2018. Even Republicans admitted it didn’t work, though a similar effort in Florida proved successful.
However, Fetterman said Democrats should not be overconfident about Biden’s chances because there is still passionate grass-roots support for Trump in Pennsylvania, a battleground state that was key to his victory in 2016. He predicts a close race there again this fall.
“There are still as many Trump signs in people’s yards and farmers are erecting their own Trump billboards in their fields,” he said. “It’s identical to what happened in 2016.”
Morning Consult is a global data intelligence company, delivering insights on what people think in real time by surveying tens of thousands across the globe every single day.