- Lottie James
Unpacking the DNC: Lessons about Biden's campaign strategy
The last few decades have overseen the evolution of the US party conventions from the large-scale partisan gatherings that they once embodied into a largely “made-for-television” event in which an excessive amount of red, white and blue floods the screens of millions of television sets across the country. This year's Democratic National Convention was certainly no exception with a painstakingly long roll call, scripted anticipation, and a flurry of polished speeches ensuring the core components of a successful convention were all present and correct. Hosted virtually from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the 2020 Democratic Convention officially adopted former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democrat’s Presidential nominee in a four-night event which oversaw the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the first black woman to ever appear on a presidential ticket. Harris’ nomination as Vice President, however, was far from the only historic moment, with the standard stars-and-stripes backdrop being replaced by one of a global pandemic in which the US has experienced the highest number of deaths and seen millions succumb to mass unemployment. In a stark reminder of the times, speeches were delivered to empty rooms and nominations accepted from libraries, whilst the clapping of audiences fell victim to technological delays in what soon became apparent was a very unconventional convention. But amidst the chaos and confusion were clear indicators of how the Democrats plan to continue their campaign, with references to the pandemic, racial injustice, and non-partisan unity setting the path on which Biden hopes to retain his double-digit poll lead.
An explosive end to the first night of the convention came in the form of Michelle Obama’s tongue-in-cheek reference to Trump’s now infamous catchline, “it is what it is” but when it came to the Democrats shift in rhetoric, more noteworthy was what was amiss. In an apparent change of strategy, representatives of the Party adopted a tamer tone in attacking the President, appearing to favour the denouncement of aptitude over character. Releasing themselves from the chains of precedent, the former President and First Lady set out the Party’s new narrative, stating that the incumbent was simply “in over his head” and had failed to adapt to the Oval Office “because he can’t”. Rebranding President Trump as purely incompetent was not just a family affair, however, with Democrats from across the Party coming together to deliver a united blow to Trump’s governing ability. In a remarkably shorter than usual address to the nation, former President Bill Clinton attacked Trump’s “determination to deny responsibility” with Hillary following suit in claiming, supposedly without irony, that she had hoped Donald Trump “knew how to be President”. As the only other candidate to be officially nominated, Bernie Sanders resisted past tendencies to go after the President’s morality, instead simply tarnishing him as “incapable” and accusing him of veering the presidency down a road towards authoritarianism. And whilst there were moments in which the Democrats efforts to “go high” appeared to slip - Michelle Obama herself made references to Trump’s lack of empathy whilst Kamala Harris indirectly referenced the President in declaring that she knew a predator when she saw one - the Convention was largely successful in introducing a campaign that looks set to frame Trump as too incompetent to carry out a second term. It was Michael Bloomberg who somewhat officiated the strategy in urging the electorate to vote against Trump not because “he’s a bad guy” but “because he’s done a bad job,” in a sentiment that will likely be echoed by Biden and his supporters in the coming months.
In direct contrast, testimonials to the Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees took on a far more optimistic tone, with Democrat’s eager to establish the Biden/Harris ticket as one of competency and compassion. References to Harris’ roles as lawyer, District Attorney, Attorney General, and California Senator were not hard to come by, with House Majority Speaker Nancy Pelosi assuring viewers that Kamala is “committed to defending the Constitution” and President Obama endorsing the Vice Presidential nominee as “an ideal partner who’s more than prepared for the job.” In placing emphasis on their nominees’ experience in office, Democrats added a further dimension to their campaign strategy, appearing to pit Biden’s past success in job creation and healthcare expansion against Trump’s lack of policy achievements. As former Secretary of Labor under the Obama administration, Hilda Solis spoke of Biden’s success and compassion, recounting how the former Vice President had saved the automobile industry from collapse. In a heartwarming story that juxtaposed Trump’s notorious mocking of a disabled journalist, 13-year-old Brayden Harrington spoke of how Biden had personally helped him to overcome his stutter in an anecdote that shone a light on the real man behind the campaign. “Decent” appeared to be the adjective of choice in attesting to Biden’s character, with the Obama’s adding that he was a brother who possessed “resilience, empathy and decency.” However, it was the story of Biden’s tremendous personal loss that most poignantly proved his true strength of character. In a heartbreaking tribute to family, Biden talked of how he had been persuaded to continue in his role as Senator following the loss of his wife and infant daughter in a car accident in 1972, whilst the death of his son Beau from brain cancer in 2015 credited Stacey Abrams’ claim that Biden “is a man of proven courage.” Whilst Harris made endearing references to her step-children, Jill Biden likened fixing a nation to how she had fixed her family, in doing so gently enacting a strategy that transforms the election into a vote on coldheartedness vs compassion.
Political attacks on the GOP, however, were not simply limited to a shift in rhetoric. In the wake of President Trump’s efforts to limit postal voting in November, the issue of voter turnout played a more pivotal role than ever before. Michelle Obama delivered one of the most memorable soundbites of the convention in calling her fellow Americans to arms, stating that “We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to,” whilst former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged citizens to turn out at the polls with a dose of self-depreciative humour. Indeed, discussion on voting was not confined simply to turnout; instead Democrats demonstrated their sharp-witted ability to turn crisis into poll leads by pushing the narrative that cuts to the US Postal Service by postmaster DeJoy had been sanctioned in a deliberate effort to re-elect Trump. Stacey Abrams and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders were quick off the mark in warning voters of Trump’s efforts to undermine democracy, with Barack Obama adding fuel to the fire in stating that the President is “trying to make it as hard as possible to vote.” And amongst the warnings of an undemocratic election and authoritarian presidency, Democrats were gleefully transparent in acknowledging the postal service fiasco as an issue that strengthens their projection of an incompetent Trump in a clear indication of what to expect in the run up to November.
It was a convention jam-packed with both former Presidents and names that will come to dominate the Democratic stage, yet the most memorable speech of the convention came from the daughter of a COVID-19 fatality. In what soon became apparent was being framed as a ‘coronavirus convention’ Kristen Urquiza stole the show in claiming that the only pre-existing condition of her father “was trusting Donald Trump.” It soon became clear that such criticism of the President’s handling of the virus, which has claimed more than 170,000 American lives, had been adopted as the star-child of this year’s campaign, with the digital delivery of the convention signalling to viewers the contrastingly responsible nature in which a Biden administration would confront the pandemic. Sanders, Abrams, and Michelle Obama were united in their condemnation of an economic collapse which has seen over 30 million Americans file for unemployment, with the Vermont Senator cutting Trump no slack in accusing him of using “fraudulent executive orders’ to rid families of their financial aid. Meanwhile, Obama and Pelosi proved fervent in their efforts to highlight Trump’s reduction in access to healthcare as a factor that has worsened the pandemic, with the House Majority Speaker directly addressing the President’s incompetency in claiming that it was his order that was preventing the passing of the Heroes Act. But it was a focus on science that appeared to dominate the Democrat’s pandemic rhetoric in a move that saw former-President Obama praise Biden’s competence in tackling the H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks as Vice President. The presidential nominee went on to discredit Trump himself, with his promise to use “facts over fiction” in order to facilitate economic growth and a return to schooling signalling how the Democrats plan on running on a manifesto that promises a sensible and science-driven response to COVID-19.
In allowing the pandemic to take centre-stage, addressing the issue of racial injustice became compulsory. Indeed, ethnicity was referenced frequently within the realm of coronavirus, most prominently by Harris herself who talked of structural racism laying the foundations for a disease that had disproportionately affected “black, latino and indigenous” Americans. However, it was in reference to the protests that have gripped America following the fatal shooting of George Floyd that Democrats denounced the President most fiercely. Keen to underline their legacy as the Party of equality, references to the late civil rights hero John Lewis were plentiful; most notably with the live streaming of the Alabama roll call from the Edmund Pettus Bridge on which John Lewis led his historic march to Selma. Efforts to link the past to the present were evident in Pelosi’s claim that Democrats had both protected Lewis’ Voting Rights Act and introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in light of the Black Lives Matter movement which Michelle Obama claimed was “still met with derision from the nation’s highest office.” In a show of solidarity with the black community, the convention gave a platform to George Floyd’s brothers Rodney and Philonise to lead a moment of silence, with the heartbreaking story of 11 year old military daughter Estella whose mother was deported to Mexico helping to frame Trump’s policy on immigration and race as heartless. However, it was Kamala Harris who truly gave meaning to the Democrats pledge to rid America of racial inequality. As the first black/Indian woman to be nominated for Vice President, Harris added clout to Biden’s claim that the deaths of George Floyd and John Lewis had been breaking points in the plight for racial justice in the US. Recounting her “stroller-eyed view” of the civil rights movement, Harris declared herself a “proud, strong black woman” whose immigrant upbringing made her the perfect candidate to eradicate structural racism. Pivotally, the potential future President himself reminded voters of his past accomplishments in advancing race relations whilst committing himself to making furthering such progress a top policy issue. Yet again, it appeared that the credentials of the candidates were being emphasised, with Biden’s past and present commitment to erasing racial injustice and Haris’ unique position as a Black and Asian-American candidate aiding the Party in their efforts to run a campaign that will grapple a commitment to levelling up against one that will continue a Republican legacy of white privilege.
It was not just the nation that the Democrats were trying to bring together, however, with speakers coming from across the political spectrum to unite behind Joe Biden. On the final night of the convention, Biden attacked the increasingly partisan GOP in talking of how America has come to possess “too much division.” With touching personal testimonies, Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigeg came together to endorse Biden, in doing so indicating a shift in compliance towards the establishment from those further left. Indeed, Sanders appealed to his supporters to throw their weight behind Biden and Harris, stating that he would work with “progressives, moderates and conservatives” in a verbalisation of a Democratic policy of non-partisanship. Most notably came life-long Republican John Kasich’s rebuking of President Trump in a move which appeared to confirm suspicion that the Democrats intend to secure the election through stressing simply who they are not. In a direct appeal to Republicans Kasich claimed that “Donald Trump’s leadership belies Republican principles,” whilst Pelosi attempted to unite undecided suburban women in reminding viewers how 90 out of 105 females in the House of Representatives belonged to the Democratic Party. Amongst the pleas from ex-Republican representatives and voters alike, it was clear that Biden and Harris remain set on the hope that Americans will interpret the November election as a referendum on Trump’s leadership.
Whilst successful in laying down the foundations of a campaign that will focus on Trump’s incompetence, the pandemic, racial injustice, and unity, when it came to the issue of policy the DNC exposed potential downfalls in the Democrat’s race to the White House. In recognising such a pivotal part of the convention, Democrats made some reference to their manifesto, with Sanders laying out the platform in stating that Biden intends on raising the minimum wage to $15 whilst expanding healthcare and transitioning to 100% clean energy. Furthermore, Elizabeth Warren stressed Biden’s intentions to “Build Back Better” in talking of how child care would be expanded and recognised as part of the basic infrastructure of America. However, Sanders’ and Warren’s pledges proved to be as far as Democrats were willing to go in terms of detail, with Biden’s manifesto encompassing a wide range of vague promises. In an attempt to appeal to Black voters, Sanders and Harris talked of how Biden would dismantle racial injustice and end the pandemic, whilst Barack Obama promised that a Biden administration would rescue the economy. But with no plan as to how such promises would be achieved, Biden appeared to be relying too heavily on the hope of a ‘Trump referendum’, in doing so leaving himself vulnerable to Republican attack. Further examples of risky policy promises were evident in Cory Booker’s claim that Biden would end poverty as well as in Pelosi’s pledge to defend Roe v Wade that failed to acknowledge the increasingly conservative dominance of the Supreme Court. Whilst Clinton and Warren appeared to signal a shift in policy towards the left with promises to create clean energy jobs, protect dreamers and cancel billions of dollars in student debt, Kasich contradicted such pledges in assuring his fellow Republicans that Biden would not turn “sharp left”. Amidst the bold statements and contradictions, it became clear that this year’s campaign will be one that fails to embrace intricate policy, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to avoid alienating would-be-Trump and Sanders voters. But whatever the reason behind Biden’s adoption of such a manifesto, it is likely that a lack of clear direction will be perceived as a weak spot by Republicans with potentially damaging consequences for Biden in his quest to occupy the Oval Office.
Image - Flickr (Adam Schultz / Biden for President)