The Trump and Biden campaigns have a voter-base problem | WORLD
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Foundational problems

The voting base, usually a source of strength, could hinder both Trump and Biden in November—for opposite reasons

Former President Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Erie, Pa. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Foundational problems
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Amanda Stewart Sprowls is a lifelong Republican. The 52-year-old suburban Arizona mom and business owner happily recalls the Reagan presidency and says that this year, shutting down the southern border is the most important ­electoral issue in her state.

Stewart Sprowls voted for the Republican border hawk Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. But she is unlikely to vote for Trump in November. She became disillusioned with her party’s leader after the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol and his repeated claims that Democrats stole the 2020 election. When a Manhattan jury on May 30 levied 34 felony convictions against him for falsifying business documents, Stewart Sprowls was not surprised.

“I think it’s pretty obvious and egregious what Trump’s done, and it’s just sad. We should get back to electing people that are morally and ethically upstanding,” Stewart Sprowls told me. “It’s a weird time to be a lifelong Republican, because I don’t know what my party is anymore. I’m for peace through strength, free markets, and conservatism. I believe that Republican policies can actually be really positive, but now it feels like a cult of personality around Trump.”

Stewart Sprowls was a grassroots volunteer for Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and presidential candidate who campaigned on a centrist platform. With Haley out of the race, Stewart Sprowls says she has no good options.

“Biden is just wishy-washy,” she said. “He needs to close the border. He won’t stand on fiscal policy or even stand up to members of his own party. His foreign policy supports allies and then publicly berates them at the same time.”

Both major presidential candidates this year are struggling to win over more centrist voters like Stewart Sprowls. But the campaign strategies that propelled each to victory in the last two elections aren’t exactly tailored to the middle.

Despite his felony convictions, Trump enjoys a relatively unified base among conservatives, but it might not be a large enough group to reelect him. That means he’d have to pivot to the center to win back disillusioned Republicans. Biden has the opposite problem: The Democratic base is a loose coalition of sub-groups, each of which the president must court. Already, though, minority voters and young adults are beginning to look elsewhere.

Meanwhile, both candidates have reason to be nervous about 2020’s nail-­biting finish. Biden won the popular vote by a mere 4 percentage points and won 306 electoral college votes. All indicators point to a similar photo finish in November—with the winner still anyone’s guess.

Trump supporters cheer as he speaks at a rally in Waco, Texas.

Trump supporters cheer as he speaks at a rally in Waco, Texas. Evan Vucci/AP

State of the campaigns

A May New York Times poll found that Trump leads Biden in five of six key swing states: Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and Pennsylvania—all states Biden swept in 2020. The sitting president also faces historically low approval ratings and a fractured base. As of May 17, an average of 56 percent of Americans disapprove of Biden’s presidency, according to the poll.

“This is maybe the weakest place an incumbent has been in since Truman in 1948,” University of Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel said. “The Dow is doing well, but that’s being offset by inflation. He’s dealing with multiple conflicts around the world compared to relative peace and prosperity before he got into office. It leads ­voters to think, ‘How are things now relative to how they were four years ago?’”

Grover Cleveland is the only former president to run against an incumbent—and win—after being defeated in his bid to win consecutive terms. Trump is looking to repeat Cleveland’s success, and Trump’s base now looks very different than it did the last time he faced Joe Biden.

“We used to think that Republicans didn’t want high turnout elections because Democrats were sort of peripheral voters,” Neiheisel said. “But now that the periphery has shifted to Trump, he has this groundswell of support among a demographic that really didn’t exist ... as a huge player in American politics. He created this constituency of non–college educated and rural voters as a political force.”

Neiheisel said Trump’s campaign does well to home in on evangelical ­support—like starting every rally with prayer, for example. Still, Trump has lost his hold on other key constituencies that supported him in 2016. His support among college-educated voters, nonwhite voters, and women all slipped in 2020.

Neiheisel said Republicans need to look to the suburbs, which largely went to Biden. None of these voting blocs will make or break a victory, but boosting support even slightly across a range of demographics could make a difference in another close election.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ strategy of cobbling coalitions has worked for candidates who can unify them. But Democratic voters have also shifted, tending now to be more educated and lean to the extreme left, partially as a reaction to Trump’s presidency. That’s left Biden with a splintering base.

“The Democratic coalition is mostly smaller groups of different kinds of people,” said Craig Snyder, a political consultant and former Pennsylvania candidate for U.S. Senate. “So you have to add a bunch of those groups together in order to get a victory, and there is a question as to whether that will hold this time.”

Proportionately, Snyder said, groups like suburban voters and youth voters are still breaking for the Democrats, but they’re not monolithic.

According to Gallup polling, Democratic voters have trended more liberal, less religious, and more educated since 2017. More voters who identify as Democrats are also single and under the age of 30. As of 2022, about 64 percent of Democratic are white, according to Pew Research. Across the country, the proportion of Democratic voters who are black, Hispanic, and Asian has slowly decreased. And in the 2022 midterms, the nonwhite vote began moving to more conservative candidates.

Democratic affiliation among men and women in every nonwhite category has dropped in the last few years, but dissatisfaction with the political left does not necessarily correlate to votes for the right.

The minority vote

Earlier this year, Gallup showed a 47-­point lead for Democrats among black and Hispanic adults, its lowest ebb since 1999. A March New York Times poll found that only 40 percent of Hispanic voters would reelect Joe Biden.

Perhaps more surprisingly given past Democratic trends, just 66 percent of black voters would vote for Biden again if the election were held today. Compare that to the two previous Democratic presidents: Barack Obama received about 94 percent of black votes in 2008 and 2012, and Bill Clinton received about 84 percent in 1992 and 1996.

Net Democratic affiliation among men and women in every nonwhite category has dropped in the last few years, according to Gallup. But dissatisfaction with the political left does not always translate into votes for the right.

“Biden needs to do incredibly well among minority voters,” Neiheisel said. “Trump has eaten into this demographic a little bit ... The group is relatively small, but this is an area where it’s important to inject some energy.”

Biden’s recent campaign stops have been designed to shore up that base. In May, he gave a commencement speech at Morehouse College, a historically black school in Atlanta. Later that day, he jetted off to Detroit to speak at an NAACP dinner. In a speech at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Biden correlated 1960s segregationists with Trump and the MAGA movement: “Today the vitriol comes in other insidious forms—an extreme movement led by my predecessor and his MAGA Republican allies, backed by an extreme Supreme Court that gutted affirmative action in college admissions.”

Yet despite Biden’s attempts to paint Republicans as anti-minority, he’s still losing ground to Trump. A May Wall Street Journal poll found that in the seven swing states, 57 percent of black men planned to vote for Biden, but 30 percent said they will vote for Trump. If those votes actually materialized, it would be a massive GOP gain: In 2020, Trump won just 8 percent of the black vote, a 2 percent gain over 2016.

“Whoever’s behind in the polls always tells you the polls don’t matter,” Snyder said. “The reality is, polls are at least a snapshot of where we are today. And where we are today is that Biden’s behind. He’s got a lot of work to do.”

Snyder notes the Biden campaign is trying to mollify supporters of all stripes, but that leaves him without a clear message on policy. For example, to assuage the Democratic base, Biden needs to adopt more liberal positions, such as ending support for Israel against Hamas. But to pull in voters on the fence, he also needs to moderate his stance on such issues.

“At the moment, the Biden campaign is trying to do both, and I’m not sure that’s possible,” Snyder added. “If you try to be all things to all people, you’ll end up with everybody mad at you.”

So far, Biden has mostly focused on Trump’s personality, criminal indictments, and now convictions, rather than his own record on such issues as border security, forgiving student loan debt (a no-go at the Supreme Court), and the inflationary sticker shock hitting voters even as Biden touts a bouyant economy.

“He also seems to be hammering on the defense of democracy, which is a harder issue to mobilize on,” Neiheisel said. “It means different things to different people, so Trump can use the same line.”

President Joe Biden addresses striking members of the United Auto Workers union in Belleville, Mich.

President Joe Biden addresses striking members of the United Auto Workers union in Belleville, Mich. Evan Vucci/AP

The youth vote

In 2020, most young voters called Biden’s age a detriment, but they preferred any Democrat over Trump. This year, the president’s age is an even bigger factor, whether he likes it or not. He’s still stinging from special counsel Robert Hur’s description of him as a forgetful old man, even though it helped him avoid an indictment for mishandling classified documents. The president has struggled to read teleprompters at campaign events. And in recent months, the White House has assigned staffers to accompany him on walks to Air Force One, an attempt to mask his halting gait.

In February, the Biden campaign launched a profile on TikTok to reach younger voters. Throughout his presidency, Biden has invited content creators to the White House to provide talking points on youth-focused topics, such as the student debt issue and education. He’s also turned a conservative obloquy into a cheeky side brand. “Dark Brandon,” an image of Biden in aviator sunglasses covering laser eyes, is meant to steal the march on a now-familiar anti-Biden imprecation. The president’s campaign uses it on mugs, flags, and internet memes to mock the right.

Still, memes haven’t translated into support. And many young liberals have a different topic on their minds this year: Hundreds of college students have been arrested on campus for setting up encampments to protest Israel’s war on Gaza. They have demanded that their universities divest from all revenue streams connected to Israel. But they also want Biden to sever diplomatic ties with Israel and support a Palestinian state.

I talked to one student activist at George Washington University who identified herself as Reem Lababdi, a sophomore. She said she’s lost trust in the president.

“I wholeheartedly reject that my vote is my protest,” Lababdi said. “I think the streets are our ballot box. If the argument is that Trump is going to wreak more havoc upon the people of Palestine than Biden has, why are those my options? I refuse to choose between two genocidal warmongers.”

Protest encampments faded after the end of the academic year, but not before pushing Biden into concessions, which included blocking a shipment of aid to Israel. He said he withheld the aid after receiving intelligence that Israeli action would hamper aid to Rafah.

Brittany Martinez, a Republican political consultant who once worked for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, told me she doesn’t think Biden is as liberal as his shifting base, a discrepancy that could cost him.

“He started to try to appease the left wing of the base with the college protests who quite frankly may not have even voted for him in the first place,” Martinez said. In trying to sway the less-gettable left, Biden may be alienating other groups in the Democrat coalition that are more likely to vote.

It’s time for the Biden campaign to pay more than lip service if it wants to pick up disaffected Trump supporters.

The independents

Biden isn’t the only candidate trying to win back the alienated. Although Trump dominated the GOP primaries and presumably has the nomination well in hand, voters have not completely abandoned his opponents. Ballots cast for Nikki Haley now number nearly 4 million and continue to trickle in even though she dropped out of the race in March. Her key areas of support come from Republican suburbs and among con­servative-leaning independents in states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

During the primaries, Trump said anyone supporting Haley would be “barred permanently” from MAGA. But he seemed to reconsider in late May, after Haley said she would vote for him despite policy disagreements. Trump said she would have a place in his future administration.

Martinez called Trump’s effort to make peace with his former rival important. “I think the Haley voters are here to stay. You need to reach out to them,” she said. “As a Republican, I like to say that we have a big tent party, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. It’s the MAGA party, and we’ve done a disservice to ourselves going in that direction over the last 10 years.”

Back in Arizona, Amanda Stewart Sprowls raises an eyebrow when she sees a Trump campaign text pop up on her phone. That’s because the messaging appears to have changed, veering away from Trump’s cantankerous speaking style and instead emphasizing free markets and closed borders. Still, Stewart Sprowls said it’s time for the Biden campaign to offer more than lip service if it wants to pick up disaffected Trump supporters. His recent executive order halting asylum request processing at the southern border helped.

“He could have gone farther, but that was a huge first step,” she said “There’s still an opportunity, I think, for Biden to earn our votes. But he has to move to the center.”

Whether any such moves might be lip service by another name remains to be seen. Martinez said Biden’s strength is that he’s not Trump, but added that does not automatically win him the anti-Trump vote, especially among conservatives.

The president “came out way too late against the protests on college campuses, he oversaw a catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal, he’s only just started to move on the crisis at our southern border in an election year,” Martinez said. “We’re still months away from the election, which is like political dog years. But if the Biden campaign wants to make up to ­moderates, they have to start now and aggressively.”

Meanwhile, analysts see many roads leading back to a Trump presidency. An unpopular incumbent, high inflation rates, and multiple overseas conflicts frequently push voters to someone new, according to conventional election-year wisdom.

While Trump isn’t new, he is also not more of the same. “The fundamentals point to a Trump advantage with more pathways to victory right now,” Neiheisel said. “Either way, this will be a really close race that surprises people.”

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.



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