WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden believes he can win a referendum on former President Donald Trump’s fitness for office. But the history of modern elections suggests that voters’ doubts about the economy could overpower any fears they may have about a threat to democracy.
So this week, Biden is traveling the country with a dual purpose: to show Americans he understands their economic anxiety and can help ease it, as well as to attack his likely 2024 opponent’s character.
He walked the picket line with striking autoworkers in Michigan on Tuesday, using a bullhorn to tell them to “Stick with it.” He is scheduled Thursday to deliver a major speech on democracy in Arizona, another swing state and one that was a target of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Biden’s lead pollster from 2020, Celinda Lake, acknowledged that his inability to convince Americans he can improve their economic standing is “a big problem.” Democrats have failed to win a presidential election in recent decades without leading — or at least tying — in polls that ask voters which party would better handle the economy.
But “if character is supposed to be 40% of the vote, why isn’t this man … just disqualified?” she said of Trump, who is facing four indictments related to his attempt to overturn the election.
An NBC News poll released Tuesday found Republicans hold a 21-percentage-point lead over Democrats on the issue of handling the economy, the largest margin the network has recorded since first asking the question in 1991.
Biden’s campaign rejects the notion that his economic message will be drowned out by his focus on Trump’s character. His advisers — who have all but given up on the idea that anyone but Trump will be the Republican nominee — argue the party can make up ground on the economy as the election nears.
But as Democrats prepare for an election they anticipate will be a referendum on whether Trump poses a threat to the country’s values, they also are beginning to question the long-held axiom that the economy is issue No. 1.
Even Lake, who has spent decades poring over data, is unsure. “It’s totally a question with Donald Trump. What are the new rules?” she said.
The 2022 midterm elections are fueling Democratic optimism that this time is different. Exit polls last year showed democracy and abortion rights — which Democrats expect will be top issues again — helped the party outperform historical trends. The Biden campaign has been looking closely at an analysis compiled by Catalyst, a Democratic research firm, suggesting that candidates in high-profile elections who joined Trump in forcefully denying the 2020 election results did 1% to 5% worse than they otherwise would have.
And although Democrats need to compete on the economy, winning the issue does not guarantee victory for either party.
Gallup has asked adults which party would keep the country more prosperous since the 1950s. The party that ultimately won the White House has either led or tied on that question in all but one presidential election since 1984. The exception was 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore after an extended recount, even though Democrats held a 7-point advantage over Republicans on the prosperity question.
The record is a little spottier when voters were asked directly to choose which specific candidate would better handle the economy. Mitt Romney held a 6-point advantage over Barack Obama in a 2012 Gallup poll, but Obama ultimately prevailed. Likewise, George W. Bush was slightly behind on the question in 2000 and 2004 but still won both elections.
“If this were a traditional presidential race, it would be a referendum on Biden,” said Anna Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster. “Is this a referendum on Bidenomics? Is it a referendum on Trump’s handling of the economy when he was president? Probably not.”
To Greenberg, that means Biden must forgo the temptation that most presidents have to dive into the details of their policy record. That will be especially challenging for Biden, who spent much of his career in Congress watching presidents struggle to pass major bills at the pace he has. But Greenberg argues that many voters will not feel the effects of the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate bill, by the time they begin voting next fall — even if she agrees with the administration on the merits.
Trump, for his part, is eager to engage on the economy. Biden “has turned to gaslighting the American people in order to cover up his disastrous Bidenomics policies” because he “is getting crushed in the polls,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said.
“The fact is that President Trump will be the nominee and will beat Biden because he’s the only person who can supercharge the economy, secure our border, safeguard communities, and put an end to unnecessary wars,” he said.
Biden must continue to challenge the idea that Trump will better handle the economy, Greenberg and other Democrats say. The issue is the most consistent winner for Trump among nonpartisan and independent voters in focus groups that Greenberg has conducted, and is often the reason voters who are otherwise uneasy about Trump cite for supporting him.
Biden intends to make the case against Trump’s economic plans as part of the broader attempt to draw a contrast with the former president, according to a strategist familiar with the Biden campaign’s plans. That includes not just touting Biden’s efforts to expand manufacturing, but also couching Trump’s corporate tax cuts as part of an argument that he is out to help the wealthy and well connected at the expense of the middle class.
Recent history suggests that Trump may be vulnerable to those attacks. He hit a low in the polls in December 2017 after he signed a tax cut bill that benefited corporations and high earners. And Democrats believe he could be hurt in Wisconsin and other important swing states as he promotes a more aggressive tariff policy that could harm farmers.
But most Democratic analysts believe those policy arguments will take a back seat to big-picture questions about personality, character and fitness for office.
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who is a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, argues that Biden can bridge the gap between policy and character by framing Trump’s proposals as outgrowths of his character. He cited Trump’s calls to defund the Justice Department and the FBI after they indicted him and his recent calls to shut down the government to punish Democrats.
“A sharp contrast already exists,” Coons said, “between President Biden, his strong record and delivering things that average American working families care about, and President Trump’s relentless focus on himself and on relitigating the last election and not caring which institutions, which traditions, which guardrails, he breaks, in order to go after his opponents.”
But Coons said he continues to hear from anxious Democrats who see polls — including an ABC-Washington Post survey released over the weekend that showed Trump leading by 10 points. He assures them that Obama and Ronald Reagan were both seen as vulnerable at similar points in their reelection campaigns, and that Democrats have armies of activists concerned over abortion rights and the environment who will help galvanize voters.
“They’re Democrats,” he said, laughing about the agitation. “Look, there’s plenty of reasons to be worried, worried about a government shutdown, worried about division domestically, worried about our path forward.”