If you don’t already give Podcast for America the periodic listen, allow me to recommend it. It’s exactly the biting, often satirical look at US politics from Mark Leibovich, Annie Lowrey, and Alex Wagner that you wish you could simply switch on the television or open a newspaper and read from them and others. Instead, if thrives in the wilds of soundcloud and iTunes where you little differences (like swearing) can add up to more than just a change of tone, but also a entirely different type of discussion.
Of course, like most media that I cover on here, there’s a criticism that I have. It’s a particular one that grows out of something Alex Wagner said in the most recent episode:
I actually was thinking as we were talking about Trump’s infrastructure how nobody has- Everyone questions the seriousness of Biden’s potential bid because there is like, ‘Does he have the money or does he have the support? Does he have the network?’ Nobody questions it when it’s Donald Trump! Certainly the money isn’t an issue for Trump, but you know, neither one- they basically have the same amount of campaign infrastructure at this point, which is to say, none at all. And yet, that seems to be a liability for Biden in a way that it is not at all for Trump.
The issue I have with this is that there’s an assumption that a presidential campaign is going to have the same relationship to traditional campaigning regardless of which major party is running it. Increasingly, people have recognized that there isn’t a “pivot” faction in US politics, or at least as much of one as most people believe there is. Voters for the most part don’t suddenly vote against the party they had favored two years before. Instead, there are two radically different electorates – one of which votes in most elections and broader one usually only mobilized in years with presidential contests. Voters are fairly consistent, it’s turnout that’s not.
The two major parties increasingly represent factions that skew towards one of those ends of the same spectrum of voting behavior. That leaves us with conditions where Democratic candidates have won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, but both the House and Senate are increasingly dominated by Republican elected officials. In both of those bodies, there’s a Democratic minority largely sustained by “coattails” that might be entirely their own earned votes, just only in the years when their types of voter turns out.
Of course, these diverging interests in what type of electorate votes impact policy as well. The Democrats have slowly but steadily come out in favor of increasing accessibility for voters transparency within the voting process, and seem poised in the coming years to question certain on-going forms of disenfranchisement – namely for convicted felons and the incarcerated. The Republicans have at the same time begun pushing tighter restrictions on voters to prevent voter fraud and sought to limit the number of hours in which votes can be cast. Both are seeking to make the elections that have a harder time winning more like the ones that they find easier, by broadening or shrinking voter turnout.
More than diverging takes on electoral regulation, there are also increasingly distinct approaches within campaigns themselves. Within both parties, large numbers of supporters are anxious over the potentially biasing effects of large political donations, now enabled by the Supreme Court. The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, has emphasized that he doesn’t need those donations because he can fund himself, while surging Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has instead highlighted how many of his contributions come from smaller donors.
That perpetuates the same divide seen in 2012 between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – with smaller donations largely going to Obama and sizable ones largely to Romney. Those donations are made in a broader campaign context. Large donations come with capturing the attention of specific donors, usually in highly specialized events. Smaller donations come from more general appearances, often while delivering iconic stump speeches. Think of Obama’s rallies versus Romney’s behind-closed-doors meetings. A similar divide is already rearing its head in the primaries this year, as Sanders calls for more primary debates – highly public moments in which he can make his case to a large audience – while Trump for a significant amount of time was basically just doing phone interviews from his own apartment.
Joe Biden might not hit the same populist note as Sanders, if he does run, but he would need to compete with that type of a campaign, tailored to a general audience that needs to directly support you for you to succeed in the election. In short, as a Democrat, he would need a ground game, a popular campaign, and other hallmarks that are being asked of his (for now) hypothetical run. Alex Wagner goes on from the part I quoted to note that Trump’s front-runner status proves that at least for now he may not need the typical campaign apparatus, and that’s because of what the Republican Party has, permitted by the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and ruling on Citizens United, evolved into an electoral entity that doesn’t seek out popular support, but the financial and political endorsement of a small minority.
To be fully fair to Wagner, I doubt that this is the reasoning behind asking different questions of Trump’s current and Biden’s possible campaign. Still, when it comes to the general election, there should be different standards applied to Biden because he would run an utterly different type of campaign from Trump or any other Republican.