How Donald Trump Can Beat Joe Biden

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

It’s my pleasure to announce that RealClearPolitics has published two more guest articles of mine. It’s in fact a real double whopper: How Donald Trump Can Beat Joe Biden, and, How Joe Biden Can Win Reelection.

Here’s the first one looking at the 2024 presidential race from the perspective of Donald Trump:

When Ronald Reagan challenged a sitting president, he famously asked his fellow countrymen: are you better off now than you were four years ago? This perfectly illustrates what is called the referendum hypothesis, meaning that elections with an incumbent are foremost a referendum on the incumbent.

Decades later, when comedian Volodymyr Zelensky challenged incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine, he told the latter in the same spirit during the debates: I’m not your opponent, I’m your verdict.

Ukrainian voters rendered the verdict, elevating the outsider and first-time candidate Zelensky to the presidency with a whopping 73%.

Another case I write about in my new book, “Beat the Incumbent: Proven Strategies and Tactics to Win Election,” is when François Hollande challenged incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in France right after the financial crisis. In every speech and interview, Hollande made sure to tie Sarkozy to key decisions the incumbent had taken before the financial crisis. Lesson learned: Don’t let the incumbent escape and get away with blaming the state of things on others.

The first challenge for Donald Trump is that he has to make sure the 2024 election remains a referendum on Joe Biden. I say that because it’s in the very nature of Donald Trump’s personality to make everything about himself. Successful challengers are willing and able to show contrast with the incumbent in a way that is beneficial for them. Joe Biden’s main weakness is, of course, his age. I have worked for executives in their 30s and others who were in their early 80s. For voters, this is not about age, per se, but about the ability to do the job. As Trump is of a similar age as Biden, one might wonder how he can take advantage of the incumbent’s vulnerability. My answer is that politics is perception and that there is a whole lot that Trump could do (especially in the absence of Biden doing anything meaningful about it). It wouldn’t hurt to lose (more) weight; Trump should be seen as vital and in action, and he has to be well-prepared for debates and speeches. As it’s a common prejudice that elderly people keep talking about the past – he should make it a point to champion futuristic issues, accompanied by a youth campaign for Trump.

My experience with dozens of candidates from around the globe is that any weakness can be neutralized if there is an honest analysis, willingness to do so, and a comprehensive strategic plan.

While successful challengers also have to make the case that they could do better than the incumbent, the key is to offer the right amount of change and in the right tone. Swing voters don’t hate Joe Biden. I would like to use the visual of the traditional family in that respect: the grandfather sits at the head of the table, and the other family members are respectful and pretend, fully knowing that he is no longer really calling the shots.

It’s been said that great campaigns are never a rerun of previous great campaigns. In that sense, Donald Trump needs to evolve and reinvent himself. He is no longer the outsider he was back in 2016. If public opinion were static, people like me would not have a job. Donald Trump needs to do something that has become unfashionable in U.S. politics, namely to reach out, and to do so in a meaningful way. One of the much-written about segments of swing voters that will be decisive in November is suburban women. Jan. 6 and abortion are just two issues that they want to see addressed.

In the case of Donald Trump, quite a number of voters not only disagree with him, but are actually scared of him. In the campaign jargon, the term “permission structure” is being used to describe that voters are looking for cues telling them that it’s ok to vote for somebody. There has to be more in store than a convention or a speech to make this happen; there has to be a comprehensive plan and a series of strategic measures.

It’s the same as in private life. Relationships are always a compromise. If the Republican message is “my way or the high way,” it’s not going to cut the deal with swing voters. One could argue that in 2020, Trump did a little bit of outreach with respect to black men, and it worked surprisingly well. (I actually think that if he had done more of it, he could have won reelection).

With respect to Jan. 6, Donald Trump could pledge to accept the results of this election. That would make the entire debate about the past much less relevant and explosive.

Do I think that any of this is likely to happen? No, I don’t. I have worked for candidates who were in their late 70s and early 80s, and I can confirm from my own experience what is being said: It’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. And this is particularly true for people who have won elections before.

That said, it’s not impossible either. After all, Kellyanne Conway was able to make Donald Trump a more disciplined candidate during the final months of the 2016 campaign.

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