WASHINGTON — Joe Biden is trying hard to win over disaffected Republicans — but can that work in such a polarized country?
All four nights of last week’s Democratic National Convention featured prominent refugee Republicans speaking against President Donald Trump and in favor of the Democratic presidential nominee. And this week, to coincide with the GOP convention, Biden’s team is launching a Republicans for Biden effort led by former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and other former GOP lawmakers.
Rather than banking on the vaunted Obama coalition of millennials, young women and nonwhite voters to power him to the White House, Biden is seeking to convert some historically GOP-leaning constituencies as Trump shows softness in support with white college grads and seniors.
“For Biden’s convention to feature famous Republicans supporting Biden is intended to send the message that he is a unifying figure and that his opponent is so extreme that members of his own party have fled,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian for NBC News.
“In more recent times, endorsements generally carry less weight than they used to, but the 2020 Democrats have used traditional Republicans like John Kasich to suggest that Donald Trump is too extreme and that Joe Biden is a safe harbor in the storm,” he added.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told NBC News that the validation from people like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich is all about “creating a permission structure” to make non-Democrats feel comfortable voting for a Democrat, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
“You know you’ve come a long way when you’ve got John Kasich, Bernie Sanders and so many people in between on the same stage,” Perez said in an interview last week in Milwaukee. “Politics is about arithmetic. Addition beats subtraction any day of the week.”
Some progressives say this outreach across the aisle is naive — and argue that even if it does work it could rob Biden of electoral mandate to advance liberal causes.
As they see it, Democrats always bend over backward to cater to Republicans by, for instance, emphasizing support for the military or religious values, but they say it almost never works. Left-leaning Democrats were perplexed to see 30-year-old progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York granted less convention speaking time than Republicans.
“It makes sense for them to create a ‘permission structure’ for Republicans and independents to vote for Biden, but we can’t sacrifice our base,” said Sean McElwee, an activist and co-founder of the left-leaning Data For Progress. “I think they should have given a bit more space for the progressive wing of the party.”
Almost four years into Trump’s presidency, it may be hard to imagine that anyone still remains undecided on the polarizing and omnipresent president.
But Trump is a uniquely divisive figure and Biden is an unusually inviting one to people who might never vote for a more liberal Democrat.
For its part, the Trump campaign has tried to portray Biden as a “Trojan Horse” for left-wing radicals. Last week, it fired back, calling the four Republicans featured on the first day of the DNC “nothing but useful idiots for the radical left,” and accused them of “supporting the far-left Democrat agenda.”
Tim Miller, a former top aide to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign who is now the political director of Republicans Against Trump, said the group of “never Trump” Republicans goes well beyond elite former administration officials and lawmakers who are its most visible members.
“We’re not enough to win a primary in most places, but we’re more significant than a lot of people realize,” Miller said.
Trump remains popular with the vast majority of GOP voters. While polls show around 90 percent of Republicans support the president, the difference between few percentage points in either direction represents millions of voters since 63 million people cast ballots for Trump.
Trump last week tweeted that he has a 96 percent approval rating among Republicans, repeating an outdated result from Republican-friendly pollster Rasmussen. But more recent polls — including one from Rassmussen — show Trump’s support among Republicans slipping a bit during the pandemic: to 90 percent, according to Gallup, 85 percent according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and just 82 percent, according to the Washington Post/ABC News.
Add to that the people who cast a protest vote for a third-party candidate in 2016 and the people who disliked both Hillary Clinton and Trump then but broke for Trump and it could be as much as 14 percent of the electorate, Miller said.
He said that if Biden won even as little as a third of these voters, he “could win a Reagan 1984-style landslide.”
Katie Drapcho, the director of polling and research for Democrats’ largest super PAC, Priorities USA, said the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly significant in moving skeptical Republicans and Trump voters way from Trump.
“What we saw in February and March was a lot of voters were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the fact that he’s doubled down on his early mistakes has concerned them,” she said. “They really want him to take it (the pandemic) seriously and he’s not. It’s connected his failures in policy and behavior to how that impacts peoples’ lives.”
Still, political scientist John Sides, a professor at Vanderbilt University, warned not to overstate the influence of a few bold-faced heretics.
“It is very hard to decompose the effect of all the events at a convention to isolate the effects of individual speakers or speakers from the other party. For that reason, I don’t think that we can expect any clear impact from having people like Kasich at the DNC,” he said.
And the effort requires Democrats to make common cause with people whom they disagree with on myriad other issues and may find morally objectionable.
For instance, Democrats gave convention speaking time to Colin Powell, a key cheerleader for the Iraq War, and former Rep. Susan Molinari, a Republican who was once a lobbyist for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. One of the latest Trump refugees, former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor, was at the agency when they were separating children from their families.
“I enthusiastically support building the biggest tent possible to win this election, even if that includes a number of self-aggrandizing Republican operatives who helped lay the groundwork for the disaster we face today,” said Tyler Law, the former press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “My sincere hope is that they stay in the tent when it comes time to do the hard work of rebuilding our economy, lowering health care costs and saving our planet.”
Indeed, Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who studies public opinion, said Democrats clearly gained ground in the 2018 congressional midterm elections with suburban white voters who have traditionally sided with GOP, but she wondered how long it will last.
“There’s a real question of whether Democrats are just sort of ‘renting’ certain groups that will come back to the Republican Party in the long term,” she said.
Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans fear something could cause these voters to snap back to their partisan corner before November.
Miller said he worried Trump could win back a significant chunk of the GOP refugees by deciding he was going to start taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously now, even at this late date.
After all, Hillary Clinton made an effort to appeal to disaffected Republicans in 2016, when Trump’s hold on the GOP was much less solid than it is now and Trump faced a mutiny from lawmakers in the party.
Jesse Ferguson, a former Clinton campaign aide who saw her gains with Republicans slip away in the final stretch, argued that Biden’s task is easier.
“In 2016, there were Republicans concerned about the ‘reality show’ president, but in 2020, there are Republicans concerned about the reality of the president,” he said.