By Chris Edelson
In ordinary elections, research shows that a presidential candidate’s running-mate selection is unlikely to have much of an effect on the outcome. People make their decision based on the candidate at the top of the ticket, not the vice presidential pick.
Of course, this is no ordinary election, for a variety of reasons , but let’s assume the research continues to apply. It’s still possible that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as a running mate could help him—and, perhaps more important from Biden’s and Harris’s perspective, it could make things even harder for President Donald Trump to win re-election.
For one thing, as Paul Brandus observed , Trump immediately—and predictably—walked into a trap that had been set for him. It wasn’t a particularly cunning trap, and it wasn’t exactly hidden.
The trap depended on Trump taking the “bait” of responding to Biden’s historic decision to choose a Black woman, the daughter of Indian-American and Jamaican-American immigrants as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate.
It didn’t take Nostradamus to predict how Trump would respond—by personally insulting Harris in ways that immediately reminded us (as if we needed reminding) of Trump’s long record of misogyny and racism . When Trump called Harris, the first Black woman on a major party national ticket, “ disrespectful ” and “ nasty ” he managed to simultaneously call to mind both the “nasty woman” insult Trump hurled at Hillary Clinton and 2016 as well as a scene that might have come from the movie “Gone With the Wind.”
In a summer of mass protests against something like the modern equivalent of lynchings, Trump made clear that he believes Harris—and, by not-so-subtle implication, other Black women and women of color—need to stay in their place.
It’s hard to think of a strategy for Biden much better than simply allowing Trump to keep talking.
It may not be necessary for Biden and Harris to do much besides getting out of Trump’s way as he continues to use the bully pulpit to alienate voters by reminding them that his calling card is hateful, bullying, personal attacks that seize on what he perceives as demographically “different” about his opponents—and that his targets are often nonwhite women .
Trump’s response to the Harris pick, however, also suggested the possibility of a slightly modified strategy allowing Biden and Harris to emphasize a positive message while Trump serves as his own personal walking, talking negative advertisement and indeed warning against the prospect of a second Trump term.
Here’s how it could work, and indeed already seems to be working. As Trump and his surrogates, with Trump taking the lead, attack Harris with tired, personally insulting misogynistic and racist stereotypes , it isn’t necessary for either Biden or Harris to mud wrestle with Trump.
Trump’s revolting attacks shouldn’t go unanswered, of course—and Harris has every right to defend herself against Trump’s dehumanizing attacks. But the Democratic campaign can rely on surrogates to do a lot of this work, and to play the “negative” game against Trump by highlighting his own vulnerabilities .
As Trump’s worn-out reality TV shtick predictably reminds voters how nasty, boorish and downright unpleasant he is, the Biden campaign can focus on a positive message, using Harris’s historic nomination itself as a springboard .
The Biden campaign can offer voters a warm, fuzzy, hopeful vision of post-Trump America. While Trump keeps trying to drag us back to a time when Black women had to fight against the demeaning expectation that they needed to “know their place,” Biden and Harris can continue to offer the vision of a post-Trump America where it is no longer routine for the country’s highest officials to casually sling racist and misogynistic insults at their political opponents.
A different viewpoint from Eric Posner: Biden should make Trump’s demagoguery the campaign issue of Election 2020
Trump is so noxious, so boorish, so divisive, that the simple promise of basic decency, decorum, and humanity—in other words, of not being Trump —is itself a positive, uplifting, and hopeful message.
Trump himself has no positive message. His campaign is essentially about scaring people, insulting his opponents and their supporters, and making false claims intended to distract Americans from his failed response to the nightmare without end that we have been living through during the five months of the pandemic .
Most campaigns have to spend some time worrying about balancing positive and negative campaign themes. Trump’s unredeemed hatred makes it less important for Biden and Harris to spend all their time making clear who Trump is. Trump does this himself each time that he speaks, and there are signs, not surprisingly, that Americans have had more than enough . That allows Biden and Harris to emphasize a positive message for voters.
With the Democratic ticket ahead in the polls , it’s Trump who needs to find a way to switch the narrative and make up ground. Biden and Harris simply have to close the deal, as voters are signaling they are very interested in the alternative to Trump that they represent.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. He has written two books on presidential power. Follow him at @ChrisEdelson on Twitter.