Does Trump’s Conviction Mean This Is a New Campaign?

President Biden Holds Campaign Rally In Philadelphia

Photo: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

It didn’t take a political super-junkie to see that Joe Biden’s campaign was shifting strategy when it showed up outside the Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday with Robert De Niro and a pair of police officers who protected the Capitol on January 6. Joined by the campaign’s communications director, the trio sprinted away from the president’s previous insistence that his political machine remain silent about Donald Trump’s trial. The cops painted Trump as unfit for office and De Niro plainly tried baiting him into a messy back-and-forth, largely around the idea that Trump had lost his mind after the 2020 election. Gone, apparently, was the Democrats’ concern about playing into the ex-president’s claims of political prosecution and their hope to appear above Trump’s sordid legal messes. At the very least, the brain trust in Delaware clearly calculated that, with their candidate stuck in a political rut five months from Election Day and with the jury about to deliberate — still two days away from finding Trump guilty on all counts — those risks were worth the reward: a rare slice of attention during the biggest show of the season, and thus another chance to try focusing voter minds on the fundamental choice facing them this fall.

For months now, Biden’s allies have responded to liberal gloom over him trailing in the polls against Trump by arguing that it will improve once semi-engaged Americans finally come to terms with the reality that they will effectively have a binary decision to make between Biden and Trump. Yet neither Trump’s easy GOP-primary victory nor the heavily covered trial itself forced that realization or caused a clear polling bump for Biden, nor has the tens of millions of dollars’ worth of advertising the Biden camp has recently poured into swing states. At least not yet. Biden troops are, of course, hopeful that the historic guilty verdict — and their new ability to call Trump a convicted felon — could help their cause. (For what it’s worth, Trump’s price immediately dove on election betting markets.) But they have evidently determined that no matter what, they must turn the first month of this summer into a period of attention seeking that reminds Americans specifically of Trump’s lawlessness and chaos.

In the campaign’s first statement after the verdict, it offered a reminder. “Today’s verdict does not change the fact that the American people face a simple reality. There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box. Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president,” said communications director Michael Tyler. “The threat Trump poses to our democracy has never been greater. He is running an increasingly unhinged campaign of revenge and retribution, pledging to be a dictator ‘on day one’ and calling for our Constitution to be ‘terminated’ so he can regain and keep power.” It’s an effort they hope will culminate in the earlier-than-ever June debate that Biden arranged to reframe the way voters are thinking — or not thinking — about the race.

It is now obvious that no one moment in the campaign will shift the public’s sour mood on the overall environment and that it will take a more sustained effort. Even since the trial began, Biden himself has sought to lower his backers’ expectations of any kind of sudden wake-up call — at the beginning of May, he warned donors at a private fundraiser in Washington that people won’t “begin to focus until they get closer to September.”

Yet this isn’t just a case of the usual undecided voters engaging only after Labor Day, nor of Trump’s unusual hold on the news media. Rather, it is the product of a singularly difficult attention economy wherein many more Americans than usual appear to be simply tuning out election news altogether. This has presented Biden with a conundrum: Polls often show the president leading among the most keyed-in voters, indicating that, atypically for Democrats, he may benefit from a lower-turnout election. Yet he still likely needs plenty of his supporters’ less engaged neighbors and friends to turn out, and reaching them is harder than ever — recent months have proved that it is not as simple as running TV ads highlighting the considerable contrast between the candidates and showing up in battleground states for rallies. “It’s way more difficult than I’ve ever seen it to break through,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who’s worked with Biden for years. “Normally a president really dominates.”

Lake has found that this dynamic is in part the product of a post-COVID shift in news consumption, where voters are avoiding traditional news coverage, assuming it will report negativity and instability. (In focus groups, even positive news about Biden’s record is often taken as a negative, or with a huge grain of salt, unless it is explicitly positioned to voters as a contrast to Trump.) In Lake’s telling, this brand of news avoidance is especially pronounced among women voters, who favor Democrats, and exacerbated in places where there is no longer any reliable local news outlet.

Thirty-four felony convictions for the man who has defined the last decade of American politics is, of course, a different kind of news event — far more likely to break through to casual or skeptical news consumers than most day-to-day political developments. So the coming month is almost certain to see an uptick in ads and communications from Biden supporters labeling Trump a felon, and his campaign also seems likely to try more surprise events guaranteed to draw headlines, like De Niro’s cameo.

Still, Democrats are hardly unified in the thought that this focus would fundamentally change the race by itself. Such an effort would likely be aimed at the roughly one-fifth of Republicans who report in polls that a felony ruling might make them reconsider or withdraw their support for Trump. Many liberal analysts are skeptical of these voters’ claims, given how many Republicans have gone along with Trump in the past (see: Nikki Haley), and point out that an effort to target these voters would still be focused on the former Haley supporters who continued to turn out in primaries this spring. That could be enough voters to swing a close election, but it is not the same group as the mass of disengaged Americans — often women, and Black and Latino voters, but especially young voters — who they believe should already be on Biden’s side.

One point of near-consensus in the Democratic ranks is that convincing this larger group of voters will largely entail making them feel better about their quality of life under Biden versus during the Trump years. Yet reminding them of Trump’s instability and unreliability can be a big part of this effort. And the push may come in a familiar form after all. Lake, for one, said that even though voters are seeking out less political news than ever, she has seen campaigns succeeding in getting their message across not just with traditional ads, but also when they pay to boost helpful news headlines and stories. This appeals in particular to voters in relative local-news deserts. And while Democrats have wrestled for years now with a broad public feeling that Trump always skates politically when it comes to his personal scandals, Lake said her research has shown that voters take certain transgressions more seriously than others. “The press presents this as a hush-money trial, but it’s an election-interference and business-fraud trial, and to get it to break through we’re going to have to be pretty focused on that,” she says. “Election interference and business fraud is a whole different ball game for voters.”

What’s not yet clear is how far Democrats will be comfortable leaning in on that particular argument, or how much money they plan to put behind it. Though the Biden camp signaled a new willingness to engage with the trial by showing up outside of it this week, its representatives still portrayed their appearance with a measure of defensiveness — they were there because the media was, they said. Any real comment on the legal proceedings themselves came only after the verdict was reached.

Yet the broader liberal frustration that they still have to convince people of Trump’s unfitness for the presidency was unmissable. At the microphones on Tuesday, with a verdict seeming far off, the Biden surrogates remained on message. “We can’t count on these institutions to stop Donald Trump. It’s going to take us Americans, at the ballot box, to defeat him once and for all,” said Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police officer. But once the event was over, De Niro offered another take. “He is guilty, and we all know it,” he said in front of the mass of reporters and Trump sympathizers. “I’ve never seen a guy get out of so many things, and we all know this. Everybody in the world knows this!” Clearly frustrated, De Niro didn’t hesitate when asked if he believed Trump belongs in jail. “I sure do,” he said. “Absolutely.”

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