Biden campaign speeds up efforts to get voters to pay attention to the presidential race

WASHINGTON — For months, President Joe Biden’s advisers have promised anxious Democrats that once checked-out voters begin to engage, he will gain the advantage over former President Donald Trump. And for months the presidential race has remained stagnant.

With the end of Trump’s criminal trial, the Biden team now sees a new window of opportunity to try and accelerate efforts to draw in disengaged voters, using its growing campaign infrastructure to ramp up voter outreach while sharpening its pitch to voters: that Trump is more focused on himself than them.

“The thing that this campaign is very focused on doing is reminding the American people — and the voters we have to mobilize and persuade — of the incredibly important choice they have, and the clear and present threat that Trump presents,” a senior campaign official said. “That threat for a lot of people isn’t front and center. And we view it as obviously our imperative to put that front and center.”

The campaign’s goal is to lay the groundwork for the first Biden-Trump debate on June 27 by driving issue-specific messages around key events and milestones. In some cases, it will be Biden himself driving the message, as with a major speech planned in France this week on threats to democracy. But consistent with the campaign’s soft touch toward hard-to-reach voters, the effort will also involve key surrogates and what Biden aides refer to as “trusted messengers” — local officials and community leaders — to highlight issues like threats to women’s reproductive rights and the president’s economic vision.

“Our task at this point is engaging them when they don’t want to engage with us,” a Biden campaign pollster said of voters. “Not waiting for them to tune in, but instead sort of being there with a persistent message.”

It’s yet another test for a campaign that began dramatically scaling up — and promising a swing in polling that continues to show Biden trailing Trump in some key battleground states — after the president’s State of the Union address in March.

One longtime Democratic donor also noted that in private conversations for several months, Biden campaign officials said the president’s poll numbers would improve, and his prospects would brighten, once Trump became the presumptive nominee.

“It hasn’t happened,” this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely.

Some Biden aides argue that any momentum the campaign had begun to build after Biden and Trump effectively secured their party’s nominations in March stalled as the former president’s criminal trial in New York dominated the airwaves. But the Biden pollster said the bigger issue is that the voters they see as key to Biden’s winning coalition — particularly younger, minority voters — are “actively tuning [the race] out in ways that we haven’t seen before.”

“They aren’t fully consolidated behind the president in ways that they were in 2020 on Election Day, and the way we feel confident that they will become this Election Day. But it’s not because they’re tempted by Trump,” the pollster said. The Biden campaign’s task now, the pollster added, is “showing them and reminding them of exactly what life was like when Trump was president last, and how much worse a second term is going to be, to elevate the stakes of the election so that even if they are feeling disaffected right now, that doesn’t mean that there is not a very clear choice in this election.”

The campaign’s new approach began last week as police officers who served at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, fanned out across the battleground states to hold events with local officials about what they called Trump’s attacks on democracy. In another key moment, Biden will deliver a major address during a trip to France to mark the D-Day anniversary this week, connecting the fight against authoritarianism eight decades ago to the work he believes must still be done to preserve democracy today, according to an administration official.

On the eighth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Biden team will hold events focused on gun safety, which polling shows is a top issue for the kinds of younger voters the campaign is hoping to win over. And there will be a steady drumbeat of events focused on reproductive rights starting this week ahead of a key vote in Congress on access to contraceptive care and building toward the June 24 anniversary of the Dobbs decision, when Biden aides said the campaign will highlight how Trump’s nomination of three conservative justices led to the Supreme Court decision overturning the abortion protections of Roe v. Wade.

Still, campaign officials are careful not to promise the kind of swing in the polls in the weeks ahead that has thus far eluded them. The Biden pollster said disengaged voters don’t act in a “light switch” fashion, but “when there are these breakthrough moments, we need to win the moment and win over the messaging.”

“These gains are going to be incremental,” they said. “It takes persistence and discipline, and that’s what we’re doing and not losing sight of the task.”

One problem for the Biden campaign in trying to reassure nervous Democrats is that currently the most engaged voters are also the most frustrated with polling that shows the president failing to gain traction. And each month that goes by has only prompted increasingly public hand-wringing about the campaign’s strategy.

Biden campaign officials counter those concerns by pointing out that while Trump’s trial was dominating the headlines, its staff on the ground in battleground states was building relationships with voters who may not be enthusiastic about the campaign now, but whose support they believe can be earned. They also make the case that Trump’s trial kept his campaign from doing the work on the ground in battleground states that’s designed to try and move voters over the next five months.

“We certainly think about the big moments as a way to catalyze and maybe energize that work, but it’s consistent. And the point I’d make about that is that Donald Trump is doing none of that,” Dan Kanninen, Biden’s director of battleground states, said in an interview. “And he cannot buy back the time that they’ve lost.”

The campaign does not expect to dwell on Trump’s historic criminal conviction on 34 felonies, Biden aides said. But to the extent the former president tries to use it as a galvanizing event for his supporters, the Biden campaign sees an opportunity to turn it against him.

“All of these things are a further iteration of the core message, that one of these candidates is getting up every day and fighting for you,” said another senior campaign official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And one person is getting up every day, talking and thinking about only himself.”

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