The basic calculation that might tip the election in favor of Biden

President Biden appears behind in all the swing states and his campaign appears all-too-focused on firming up his political base on the left with his new shift on Israel, a $7 trillion budget, massive tax increases and failing to connect on the basic issues of inflationimmigration and energy. By pitching too much to the base, he is leaving behind the centrist swing voters who shift between parties from election to election and, I believe, will be the key factor deciding the 2024 race.

I’ve spent decades looking at the behavior of swing voters and how candidates appeal to them, including for Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996. If Mr. Biden wants to serve another four years, he has to stop being dragged to the left and chart a different course closer to the center that appeals to those voters who favor bipartisan compromises to our core issues, fiscal discipline and a strong America.

People usually assume that turning out so-called base voters in an election matters most, since swing voters are fewer in number. And it’s true that in today’s polarized environment, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump each has about 40 percent of the country in their bases already and nothing will change those people’s minds. But in that remaining 20 percent of the electorate, swing voters have disproportionate power because of their potential to switch. It’s simple math: Take an electorate of 10 voters in an election tied 5 to 5. If one voter swings, the margin becomes 6 to 4. Two voters then need to be turned out just to tie it up and a third one is needed to win.

The simple power of this math — which drove the campaigns of Mr. Clinton (with his message about “building a bridge to the 21st century”), George W. Bush (“compassionate conservatism”) and Barack Obama (“hope and change”) — has been obscured, undoubtedly by base groups like unions or PACs that have a vested interest in maintaining their sway and power. Take Michigan, a battleground state where Mr. Trump has led Mr. Biden by as many as three percentage points in the last month. To overcome that gap, Mr. Biden would need to bring out nearly 250,000 additional voters (3 percent of more than eight million registered voters) just to tie it up in a state that has already achieved a record of over 70 percent turnout in a presidential year. Or Mr. Biden could switch just 125,000 swing voters and win.

Despite this math, scared candidates are, in my experience, easily sold the idea that the Democratic base or Republican base is going to stay home in November unless they are constantly fed what they want to hear. One call from the head of a religious group, a civil rights group, a labor group and others (often called “the groups”) and fear runs through a campaign. A New York Times article this winter about Black pastors warning the Biden White House that his Gaza war policy could imperil re-election is a good example. Maybe if Mr. Biden were running against a well-liked centrist opponent, concern could be justified. But during a fall election against Mr. Trump, the final month of this campaign is going to see a frenzy of get-out-the-vote efforts, and I doubt the Democratic base is going to sit idly by at the thought of the Trump limo cruising up Pennsylvania Ave. The reality is that swing voters in battleground states who are upset about immigration, inflation, what they see as extreme climate policies, and weakness in foreign affairs are likely to put Mr. Trump back in office if they are not blunted.

Consider some Democratic electoral history. Joe Biden got 81 percent of the vote in the Michigan Democratic presidential primary in February. He got roughly similar percentages in the Colorado, Texas and Massachusetts primaries — not too far below other incumbent presidents with a weak job rating. And yet for months, liberal commentators and activists pointed to the Michigan protest vote as proof that Mr. Biden is doomed in November over his Israel stance. But Michigan was hardly a repeat of the 1968 New Hampshire primary that effectively ended Lyndon Johnson’s re-election bid — Eugene McCarthy got 42 percent and that was a truly sizeable protest.

I believe most of the 101,000 “uncommitted” votes that Mr. Biden lost in Michigan will come home in the end because they have nowhere else to go, and the threat Mr. Trump poses will become clearer and scarier in the next six months. But regardless, there’s a much bigger opportunity for Mr. Biden if he looks in the other direction. Mr. Trump lost nearly 300,000 votes to Nikki Haley in the Michigan Republican primary. These people are in the moderate center, and many of them could be persuaded to vote for Mr. Biden if he fine-tuned his message to bring them in. And remember to multiply by two: convincing those 300,000 Republicans to cross party lines has the equivalent force of turning out 600,000 Democrats. The same math applies to other battleground states, like Pennsylvania, where 158,000 people voted for Ms. Haley instead of Mr. Trump in the Republican primary — even though she dropped out seven weeks earlier.

Unfortunately, Mr. Biden is not reaching out to moderate voters with policy ideas or a strong campaign message. He is not showing clear evidence of bringing in large numbers of swing voters in the battleground states at this point. Those swing voters look for fiscal restraint without tax increases, climate policies that still give people a choice of cars and fuels and immigration policies that are compassionate to those who are here but close the borders. The balanced budget remains one of the single strongest measures that swing and other voters want. Bill Clinton’s efforts to balance the budget set off the revolution that resulted in an eight-point win even with third party candidates in 1996 and catapulted his job approval ratings to above 70 percent. Instead of pivoting to the center when talking to 32 million people tuned in to his State of the Union address, Mr. Biden doubled down on his base strategy with hits like class warfare attacks on the rich and big corporations, big tax increases, student loan giveaways and further expansions of social programs despite a deficit of more than $1.1 trillion. The results that quickly dissipated.

Mr. Biden’s campaign has fundamentally miscalculated on Israel. Those Haley voters are strong defense voters who would back ally Israel unreservedly and I believe want to see a president who would be putting maximum pressure on Hamas to release hostages. By pandering to base voters with no choice, Biden is pushing the Haley vote to Trump and so his first instincts on Israel were both good policy and good politics. Eighty-four percent of independents support Israel more than Hamas in the conflict and 63 percent believe a cease-fire should occur only after the hostages have been released. The more Biden has pandered to the left by softening his support of Israel, the weaker he looks and the more his foreign policy ratings have declined. Rather than pull decisively away from Israel, Mr. Biden should instead find a plan that enables Israel to go into Rafah and that has enough precautions for Rafah’s civilians so the American president can back it.

At this point, Mr. Biden also needs to give a serious speech on the issues of crime and immigration and what they are doing to our inner cities. He has to combine policies of fair policing and treatment of DACA recipients with tougher crime and immigration policies. Seventy-eight percent of independents want the Biden administration to make it tougher to get into the United States illegally, but 63 percent ultimately want compromise legislation that strengthens the border while giving DACA recipients a path to citizenship. On crime, despite many violent crime metrics returning to their pre-Covid levels last year, voters have been more worried than ever. Eighty-three percent of voters want shoplifting laws to be enforced strictly and 69 percent support Justice Department intervention against city district attorneys who are pulling back prosecution of violent offenders. President Biden has to be more responsive to these concerns.

Mr. Biden’s energy policies, especially his push for more electric vehicles, are not popular either. Fifty-nine percent of Americans oppose the mandate that half of all cars sold in the United States by 2030 be electric. In Michigan, Mr. Trump has identified a potentially killer strategy by going around telling auto workers that EVs will destroy their jobs. Unlike foreign policy issues, threats concerning the loss of auto industry jobs could directly affect hundreds of thousands of voters in Michigan.

The 2024 election is a rematch, but Mr. Biden should not assume that he will get the same result as he did in 2020 in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and other battleground states by running the same playbook. This time around, Mr. Biden is seen as older, and the assessment of the job that he has done is in negative territory. While he won’t get any younger, he could still move more to the center, hoover up swing voters who desperately want to reject Mr. Trump, strengthen his image as a leader by destroying Hamas, and rally the base at the end. But that means first pushing back against the base rather than pandering to it, and remembering that when it comes to the math of elections, swing is king.

The post The Simple Math That Could Swing the Election to Biden appeared first on New York Times.

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