How the Biden Team Developed A Winning Marketing Strategy
During the early days of the Democratic primary campaign, Joe Biden looked like anything but a winner. He was a no show in the two early primaries, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire. Without a strong showing in South Carolina, Biden would go down, like Jeb Bush of four years ago, as a front-runner who could not get beyond the starting gate.
But South Carolina’s kingmaker U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House Democrat Party Whip, gave Biden a ringing endorsement. Biden went on to win that primary and never looked back. All of his competitors for the nomination quickly folded thereafter, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. They closed ranks and agreed that Biden would be their party’s best chance of taking down the “evil empire” of Donald Trump.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Difficult to Defeat the Incumbent
Winning against an incumbent President is no easy task because of the power of the office and the “bully pulpit.” It usually takes an unusual circumstance or set of circumstances. In recent years, Jimmy Carter fell to the enormous personal appeal of Ronald Reagan coupled with the embarrassment of Iran’s holding Americans hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran. Gerald Ford was an unelected incumbent who carried the Watergate stain when he pardoned Richard Nixon. Herbert Hoover was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in the darkest days of the Great Depression.
So, despite highly positive poll numbers and highly negative numbers for incumbent President Donald Trump, developing a winning marketing strategy was not an easy task. Yet, it was crucial step for winning.
Resurrecting the Obama Coalition
Perhaps the key to the Biden strategy was the need to resurrect the Obama coalition of African Americans, Latinos and young people. Unfortunately, Biden lacked the charisma of Obama, and Hilary Clinton discovered the Obama coalition only worked for Obama. Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton involved a highly unusual set of circumstances including: (1) apathy over Clinton, which was reflected in weak turnout from the key elements of the Obama coalition; (2) lack of appeal of Clinton among many suburban educated white voters because of the “baggage” she carried from various scandals like her e-mails, ‘White Water,” Benghazi and husband Bill; (3) two third-party candidates that siphoned off votes from those who didn’t like either Clinton or Trump; (4) FBI Director James Comey’s “October Surprise” announcement of the re-opening of the e-mail scandal less than two-weeks before the election.
Clearly, resurrecting the Obama strategy would not be automatic. Moreover, there were racial issues – a white backlash to Obama’s Presidency was evidenced by events such as Charlottesville and urban racial rioting and looting. On the other hand, no other Democrat was as popular with African Americans as Biden. In fact, he was more popular than his two African American adversaries for the nomination. Thus, the support of African Americans was a core element of the Biden strategy, and he strengthened his hold on this market segment by naming Kamala Harris, an African and Asian American woman, as his running mate.
The Latino market was not as easy to resurrect because it was so fragmented. In Florida there were Puerto Ricans and Cubans. The Puerto Ricans were resentful to Trump for his insufficient funding for hurricane relief. On the other hand, the Cubans detested Obama’s diplomatic moves to reach out to a Cuba still run by the Castros. In Texas and the Southwest, as well as northern cities, were the Mexican and Central Americans who are strongly anti-Trump. A key surrogate in reaching this population segment was former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke.
The youth vote, so enamored with Bernie Sanders, was rather apathetic to Biden. This market segment has largely not voted in past elections. Their key issues were the environment and gun control. Biden needed a strong effort to martial this segment because he lacked appeal. To boost ratings in this segment, the Biden team used popular surrogates such as Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC).
The Blue Wall and Pandemic
Then there was the geographic challenge created by the electoral college. Those “Blue Wall” crucial states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which Trump won in 2016 by a total of 70,000 votes, had to be turned from Red (Republican) to Blue (Democratic). Major campaign time and money was required, and Biden got both.
Finally, the pandemic, clearly the overriding issue in the campaign, required major consideration. Trump, who critics say “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” handed this issue to Biden by default with the “super-spreader” Rose Garden reception for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as well as his many rallies attended by thousands of largely unmasked supporters.
In conclusion, the partial resurrection of the Obama coalition, the geographic strategy and the focus on the pandemic issue formed the basis of Biden’s winning strategy. However, it was still a little too close for comfort because of the difficulty of dislodging the incumbent.