Elections with an incumbent are foremost a referendum on the incumbent. As two-thirds of Americans think that their country is headed in the wrong direction and more than half of voters tell pollsters that they disapprove of the job President Joe Biden is doing, the 2024 election is the Republicans’ to lose.
In my forthcoming book Beat the Incumbent, I, however, warn candidates not to rely solely on the weaknesses, failures, and even scandals of an incumbent government. They are often not enough to bring down an incumbent government. As a focus group respondent once eloquently said, “Voting for a challenger is like moving houses. Yes, you’re unhappy with the place you currently live in, but you want to know what the new house will look like.”
And that’s the problem for Republicans. Their likely nominee, Donald Trump, is as disliked as Joe Biden, and worse, he’s not a new commodity as challengers otherwise often are. Most people have made up their minds about him, and it’s much more difficult to change public opinion than to define it in the first place.
I always tell my clients that the best and only starting point for effective campaign planning is brutal honesty. The reality is that being out on bail in four jurisdictions, Donald Trump is a deeply flawed general election candidate.
So, the election is down to the so-called double haters, those who have an unfavorable opinion about both Trump and Biden. The consequence of this is that if the focus will be on Joe Biden next year, Donald Trump will win. If the spotlight is on Donald Trump, however, Joe Biden has a chance to survive.
For any challenger, the first imperative is, therefore, to keep the focus on the incumbent and lock him in. Voters are clearly unhappy with the status quo, which means Donald Trump and Republicans now need to make the case on why this is Joe Biden’s fault. Don’t let them get away with it the way Barack Obama and his team avoided blame for economic dissatisfaction in 2012 and skillfully passed it on to George W. Bush.
The second imperative is to describe what the new house, a second Trump term, would look like. Swing voters don’t care or might even be turned off by personal vendetta. Unless the conflicts in Ukraine and in the Middle East turn into World War III, the deciding issue will be, as always, the economy. Voters used to credit Trump with economic competence, so there is something to work with. During the first three years of Donald Trump in the White House, the U.S. economy did remarkably well. Republicans should take this record as a basis to actively renew and update their credibility on the economy. There has to be more in store to get out and vote for than the usual hackneyed claims of lower taxes and less bureaucracy.
In politics, the biggest strength of a candidate is often his biggest weakness. In that sense, the case of Donald Trump is nothing new, but it’s just more pronounced. As enthusiastic his base might be (and the campaign should work on making them more enthusiastic and especially on turning them out to vote), Republicans have to come to terms with the fact that the base is not enough to win a general election under normal circumstances. While there are certainly fewer independents and swing voters than 20 or 30 years ago, they’re still out there, and they are still the ones to decide a general election. This means that Republicans and Trump have to do something that has become somewhat unfashionable in U.S. politics, namely, to reach out in a meaningful way.
In other words, Republicans have to offer voters the right amount of change and do so in the right tone. If he will be the nominee, a way to make voters comfortable with voting for Trump is also to explain to them that you can’t get what you like about Trump (his record on the economy) without what you dislike about him (his personality). As is commonly said, it takes a tough man to make tender chicken.
In terms of organization, Donald Trump is somebody who has always done everything on his own. But this is not the way to win a presidential campaign, and it cannot be done by the family. Having orchestrated political campaigns around the globe for more than a decade, I have come to realize the importance of discipline to manage resources and win elections.
I can only warn Republicans about polls showing Trump leading Biden in battleground states. In terms of predicting the outcome of the election, polls are meaningless at this point in time. In fact, an early lead in the polls is a sweet poison, putting candidates and their teams to sleep and keeping them from taking much-needed action. Republicans have homework to do, and if they don’t take drastic action now, they might blow it (again).
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
Dr. Louis Perron is a political consultant who has orchestrated and won elections around the globe – from big city mayors to presidents. His forthcoming book Beat the Incumbent: Proven Strategies and Tactics to Win Elections is a step-by-step guide for challengers to win elections at any level of government.
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