What’s Our Message Now?

This much is for sure. We are in uncharted territory. For the first time in history, a former president and current candidate is a felon. We will either be dealing with that stunning reality for five more months or four more years. 

An historic event like a major presidential candidate being convicted of multiple felonies is certain to have a disruptive electoral impact. But exactly how that will play out is hard to predict in this highly polarized electoral climate. 

Let’s take a look at post-verdict messaging from the perspective of Biden campaign messaging and that of other players including progressive groups and progressive candidates for other offices.

Here’s why those different perspectives matter. In some years, the presidential candidate offers a compelling messaging framework and other players just fall in line. (Think Obama in 2008 with the audacity of hope, “fired up, ready to go” focus.). This isn’t one of those years. 

In 2024, the progressive community and progressive candidates need to use their substantial megaphones not just to reinforce the Biden message but to deliver messages that Biden either can’t or won’t.

Let’s examine four critical June to November messaging questions from that dual perspective. 

Should Trump being a convicted felon become a centerpiece of Biden messaging?

The conviction is a major point of accountability for someone who throughout his life has avoided paying a price for his illegal actions. And, in a “normal” political world, it would be altogether disqualifying. 

But, on our current wild political climate, Trump’s bad behavior is baked into his base’s sense of him. So, its electoral impact may be more muted than it is fair to expect – save for one crucial audience.

Most analysts believe the election’s outcome hinges on the voting decisions of a relatively narrow slice of the electorate in a handful of swing states. These voters are mostly “double negatives” – people with an unfavorable view of both candidates. A reluctance to pull the lever for a convicted felon could be decisive.

The messaging challenge for the Biden team: Invoking that reluctance without dwelling so heavily on Trump’s conviction as to drown out other vitally important messages discussed below. 

Can the Biden team and other progressive messengers avoid over-investing in the existential threat to democracy and bring the Trump threat down to earth for voters?

Trump being a felon adds even more weight to the already powerful argument that a second Trump presidency would pose an existential threat to democracy. But it would be a big mistake if the conviction leads messengers to over-invest in that broad message.  

The over-arching “end of democracy as we know it” case works best on core elements of the Biden base. That base already well understands the threat and needs few reminders of the stakes. for other elements of a winning Biden coalition, the existential threat argument may well be too much at the 30,000 feet level of abstraction, too far removed from the daily realities of their lives.

The challenge over the next five months is to bring the Trump threat closer to the ground. Instead of broadly expressed threats to democracy, there should be more focus on specifics. We need to let people know how Trump will use and abuse his power not only in ways that impact the health of democracy but that weaken the health of their families, the education of their children, the security of their grandparents and the safety of their communities.

Should Biden give up on the “finish the job” message in favor of comparative Trump messaging?  

“Finish the job” may be the weakest argument that Biden advances. It’s rooted in the administration’s understandable frustration that the electorate fails to understand and appreciate the President’s considerable achievements. Asking voters to help “finish the job” implies that major advances have already been achieved and what’s needed next is some tidying up.

Whatever the reality, that message just doesn’t comport with the attitudes and opinions of the voters who will decide the election. And pressing forward with “finish the job” rhetoric threatens to frame the election as a referendum on Biden’s presidency as opposed to the more favorable Biden vs. Trump terrain especially now that one of the two is a felon.

This is an area where progressive organizations and non-presidential candidates need to play a corrective role in response to a Biden tactical misstep.

Where’s the focus on the future?

The Trump trial in New York has drowned out most other political news for six long weeks. And the Supreme Court is expected to soon make its long-delayed ruling on Trump’s claim of absolute immunity from criminal charges. So, we have more focus on Trump legal issues ahead.

But that doesn’t change the fact that elections are about the future. That’s especially true for an 80-year-old President with low job approval ratings
seeking re-election.

Amid all the drama about the first convicted felon to ever be this close to the presidency, we can’t neglect talking to voters about how the outcome of the elections will affect their daily lives.   

What will the lives of people in need of abortion care look like depending on who wins? Will communities be exposed to more severe weather events if Trump revokes all of Biden’s climate initiatives? Will families have a harder time receiving health care if Trump repeals the Affordable Care Act?

We can’t let the Biden vs. the Felon drama squeeze out these kinds of questions. And, here again, is a place where advocacy groups with strong credibility on the issues they work on can have a significant impact.

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