The Covid-19 pandemic is changing a lot of things, fast—and one of them is American politics. Everything from campaigning to the way we vote is suddenly up in the air. And that’s on top of a primary season that was already one of the strangest in memory.
What does it mean for President Donald Trump, for Joe Biden’s chances in November, and for the country? Should Biden hide, or come out swinging—and which VP choice would give the Republicans the most to worry about?
To find out, we reconvened our expert panel of four of the Republican Party’s 2016 campaign managers: Danny Diaz (Jeb Bush), Beth Hansen (John Kasich), Jeff Roe (Ted Cruz) and Terry Sullivan (Marco Rubio). When we first gathered last June over drinks and cigars in a smoke-filled room in Washington, the group explored the parallels between the 2016 and 2020 primaries, what made Joe Biden Trump’s toughest opponent in the general election and why Kamala Harris was the “best political athlete” in the race. A few months later, we reassembled the panel—without Hansen, whose flight was canceled—in Austin, Texas, at the Texas Tribune Festival. Biden was slipping, Warren was soaring, and with some two dozen candidates still in the race, the Democrats appeared headed for the type of nasty, protracted primary that Republicans endured four years earlier.
Now, some two months into the norm-obliterating coronavirus pandemic, we gathered for a third time. But with one big change: We did it virtually. There were still drinks and cigars, but we were enjoying them in five different states and multiple time zones. Think of it as a smoke-filled Zoom.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the panel zeroed in on some big-picture worries and some tactical details, including why Covid-19 threatens to tank turnout this November, fears about Trump’s behavior if the election results are uncertain, and the one thing everyone agrees on: Whom the Democrats should nominate for vice president.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
TIM ALBERTA: Obviously, we care about the health implications of Covid-19, and we care about the economic implications. But we’re all in the political business. Jeff, why don’t you start: What do you think is the most immediate political implication that Covid-19 will have on the election?
JEFF ROE: I think the best thing that’s happened for Trump is that there’s going to be an evolution here as people slowly migrate from the health crisis to the economic crisis. In a survey this morning, 50 percent of Republicans now view this more through an economic lens than a health care lens. Independents are like 35–55, they’re behind, they care more about the health than the economics. And the Democrats are the last; they care about 70 percent health; 20 percent economics.
But as this clears, and as the health crisis subsides and this becomes an economic crisis, it’s a perfect storm for Trump, because now the central question of the campaign will be: Who can lead us back? Who can rebuild the economy? Before this, about 71 percent of the people said that the economy was great; a stunning 61 percent gave him credit. Even if you hated the guy building your house, your general contractor, but you lived in the house, you loved the house, and you had great experiences in the house, but then it burned to the ground—are you going to go with somebody that you know builds the house even if you don’t like him? Or are you going to go with somebody brand new, that’s untested? And so, I think for Trump this frames the election around, “I’m the one you can trust to bring us back.” It makes his old slogan new again.
BETH HANSEN: I understand the argument Jeff is making, but I would suggest that getting back out of this economic situation is going to be far more difficult than it was in, say, 2008, 2009. There’s going to be concerns about as you open up the economy are you going to have a new spike in [Covid-19-] cases? So, I’m not sure that we know right now whether or not things will begin to be trending for the better by the time November comes around. But to your overall question, Tim, I just keep thinking about Vice President Biden. He has completely fallen off the radar. And every single day President Trump has an opportunity to talk about what he and his team are doing; if you’re Vice President Biden, you are having trouble doing what is most important to you, which is energizing your base and getting them to understand what it is that you’re going to be able to do for the Democratic Party in the fall. They’re going to have to come up with new ways of getting their message out because all the things that they might have done before, whether it’s fundraise or rallies or press coverage, they are not able to do. And this hits Vice President Biden far harder right now than it does the president.
TIM ALBERTA: Danny, jump in there. You’ve talked in our previous conversations about a referendum election versus a choice election. Maybe the longer Joe Biden stays in his bunker, the better his chance to make this just a pure referendum on President Trump, who’s out in front of the cameras every single day.
DANNY DIAZ: I’m a firm believer that the less that people see about Joe Biden, the better it is for Joe Biden. This is a guy that almost every day trips over himself, whether he’s in his library or somewhere else. And from my perspective, I think if this race is a race about Trump to some degree, that’s a pretty good day for Joe Biden. And it’s kind of being exemplified right now: It’s about the president every day behind the rostrum, talking about the coronavirus, and to Beth’s point, Biden’s kind of off the grid. And it’s helping him. If you look at polling the last three or four weeks, it’s been beneficial to him.
TIM ALBERTA: Terry, with people going into lockdown, all of these small businesses closing, Congress appropriating historic amounts of money—there are going to be political aftershock from this. We just don’t know what they are yet. What does your gut tell you?
TERRY SULLIVAN: The list of unknown unknowns is exhausting. Hell, none of us know what next month looks like, much less, what—190 days until the election? So, I think it’s very hard to predict anything. I agree with what Danny said that, look, less Joe Biden is a good thing for Joe Biden. I mean, Trump wanted to be out there decimating him right now and defining him and he’s not able to do that. And it’s something that Trump is very good at, is defining his opponents and then baiting them into making mistakes. He can’t do that right now. And so, that’s an advantage to Biden. I think that, to Jeff’s point, if your house burns down, do you go back to the same person? I think that voters would be upset that the contractor didn’t make their house fireproof and—there’s a lot of irrational stuff. Your house burns to the ground, you’re not thinking rationally. Right now, I don’t know that voters are thinking through this in a logical, rational way, and so I think that they’re not necessarily going to go back to Trump because he presided over it. And the economy is still going to suck by the time we get to the election, even if he’s done amazing things, it’s still not going to be where it was two months ago. And that’s a problem for him.
BETH HANSEN: Danny and Terry, I would argue, though, that the vice president is going to need intensity. He is going to need what Hillary Clinton lacked four years ago: intensity. And most of that intensity will be the referendum on the incumbent, and they certainly have their story there. But I think voters are smarter than just to think, “I will go with somebody I know nothing about, or little about, against an incumbent.” It’s largely a referendum on the incumbent, but I just think [Biden] has got to be able to drive up that intensity and he can’t do it if people can’t see him.
DANNY DIAZ: Well, I agree with you on that front, and polling clearly shows an intensity gap for Biden. Right now, the crisis and the management of the crisis leads me to believe as of today that it’s more of a referendum, less a choice. But to Terry’s point, because [Trump] is not able to get in the ring and punch and counterpunch like he normally would, and use a $ 200 million cash advantage, right now those dynamics are a negative to the president.
TERRY SULLIVAN: I’m not saying that less Joe Biden in October is a good thing, but right now—I mean, this is a long time to not step on himself. And so, I think this is giving him a chance for a reset, consolidate his base, to act like he’s going to be more of a communist like Bernie. I mean, he’s able to do those things now kind of under the radar without getting pounded by the president every single day. And so, that’s given him a breather.
TIM ALBERTA: Jeff, if you were in charge of running a campaign that’s essentially off the grid, at least for a little while, how are you using this time? And what are the advantages and disadvantages to Biden being off the grid?
JEFF ROE: It’s a huge opportunity for him, in my opinion. He is a damaged vessel. In Democrats’ minds he was the best vessel for them—he had been vetted the most, there was the most known about him, they were convinced that a moderate needed to be the nominee over a riskier choice. And it’s almost a perfect storm: He lost three states, he won one state, and then the entire apparatus fell in behind him. And then he gets through the tough part of the campaign, spending no money, no staff, no nothing—and then he goes underground, and he goes into his basement and he hangs out. It’s a perfect opportunity for him. Trump against Trump is much worse for us than Trump against Biden.
What I’d be doing now is not taking the bait if I’m running this campaign. I’m just going to stay there, consolidate the left. He’s got a decision to make. There’s two schools of thought in presidential politics. I openly subscribe to one of them. You either believe that you win with the middle or you believe that you motivate your base. And when you’re running against an incumbent president, almost always they have a defined electorate, so they motivate their base. Biden has a choice to make. We’re going to see what kind of campaign they’re going to run. And right now, I would be knife-fighting in the campaign to make sure that my side won out. And it’s all going to be defined by the selection of a vice presidential candidate. I think that all of his instincts and all of his senior team, long-term folks, are all centrist campaigners. The new folks, they are simply about the base—crank and turn out the base. It’s the difference between a Stacey Abrams or an Amy Klobuchar.
TIM ALBERTA: Even without the pandemic, this might have gone down as the strangest primary contest in modern presidential history: We have a guy who was beaten soundly in the first three contests and then 2½ weeks later was running away with the nomination. Beth, as you’re watching that unfold in late February through middle of March, what were you thinking? What happened?
BETH HANSEN: That was just a damn miracle. I’m sure there were a million things that were going on behind the scenes, but I honestly think that somehow they watched those debates, they watched the tenor of the campaign, they watched the tone of the language that the progressives were using, and I think that Democrats made a decision that they were going to move to the center, and they were going to nominate the person they thought was most likely to win, and that was Joe Biden. And you saw the immediacy of almost all of those endorsements following very quickly. They drop out and they endorse him. It was stunning to watch them fall in line.
TERRY SULLIVAN: It was the egotistical, self-serving candidates that decided to put their party and the good of their party ahead of their own egos when they had zero path to winning the nomination. They decided to get out. And that didn’t happen in 2016. When people had absolutely no chance, they were too self-centered and egotistical to step aside.
[EVERYONE—except BETH—laughing and nodding. This is a continuation of the group’s assault on John Kasich for refusing to quit the GOP primary in 2016.]
DANNY DIAZ: You could see this coming from a mile away.
TERRY SULLIVAN: I mean, it just came across the plate so slow.
BETH HANSEN: What was Jeff saying about not taking the bait?
JEFF ROE: To be fair, we didn’t have Barack Obama to get everybody in the room and fix it. But I’m not taking away from your point, Terry—at all.
TIM ALBERTA: Danny, how were you making sense of this as you watched it unfold?
DANNY DIAZ: Two words. Inside straight. I don’t know that we’ll ever see it again. I do give him credit for one thing, which Beth pointed to, which is the sequencing of the endorsements subsequent to South Carolina, kind of going into Super Tuesday. He was really able to manufacture a level of momentum building off of South Carolina with no money, no staff, and he used that as a way to drive a narrative that was helpful to him in all of these other states. On Super Tuesday, I think by any estimate he over-performed everybody’s expectations in a lot of these states, so there’s an element of credit, quite obviously, that should go to him in sequencing these announcements. But some of this was just dumb luck.
TIM ALBERTA: Jeff, we all laughed a minute ago at what Terry said. But just as Bernie Sanders appeared to have a head of steam coming off wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, Democrats were able to a coalesce around a more traditional party favorite in Joe Biden to stop him. We didn’t see that in the Republican primary in 2016, when some of you were trying to prevent Trump from running away with the nomination. How did you view Biden’s sudden dramatic comeback through that prism of 2016?
JEFF ROE: The Democrats never spilled any blood, and we had spilled plenty of blood. They just ran a 25-person Democrat primary without a single negative ad being run by a campaign. But I think the other advantage is they saw 2016. They saw [what we did to each other]. But Bernie Sanders—this is the thing, this is the lesson—Bernie Sanders could have put Biden away, and he did not do it. These other folks, besides Buttigieg, I think all the Democrats kind of like each other. There wasn’t a big pent-up [rivalry], they hadn’t been running against each other like a lot of our candidates for 10 years, wondering if you’ll be the next one, like we’re probably all going to do again in ’24.
TIM ALBERTA: Danny, jump in on this. I think to the degree that there was bloodshed in this Democratic primary, it wasn’t as much between individuals or campaigns as it was ideological factions. Now that Joe Biden has the nomination, how does he begin to repair that rift between the center-left and the progressive left of the Democratic Party?
DANNY DIAZ: One, he’s not Hillary Clinton. And he gets to learn—like, in ’20 they were learning from ’16. He gets to learn ’16, too. You already see it with the way he’s engaging the Bernie crowd. And I think he has Trump to use as a foil, to get these people superenergized and get them out. That was not the case in ’16. He has an intensity disadvantage, but he has a lot of time between now and Election Day to turn that up. So, from my perspective it’s going to be interesting to see this team he puts together to choose a VP, and ultimately, who he selects. And I think that’s buttressed against one major thing, it’s a key vulnerability—his lack of steadiness. Obama chose him because he needed experience. Biden’s going to need somebody who’s ready to be president. Why? Because there are serious questions about his capability as a candidate, and hence, as president. He needs to thread that needle with the ideological piece that he needs to land to get the intensity level up amongst the left to a degree that he can go mano a mano against the president. I believe it’s just about that simple.
TIM ALBERTA: Terry, the VP selection notwithstanding—because I want to get into the details on that and do some handicapping of specific possibilities—what can Biden do to energize the left, without scaring the hell out of the centrist suburban voters who played such a big role in swinging the House in 2018?
TERRY SULLIVAN: I think he’s a fool if he does anything publicly because at the end of the day, these Bernie supporters—I know you’re talking about intensity—but at the end of the day, Donald Trump provides the intensity to those people as a rationale to get out and vote against him. And he needs to send some smoke signals and he needs to have surrogates out there on his behalf. This goes back to the first point made: If this race is about Donald Trump, Joe Biden has the best shot of winning. And if [Biden] goes out and takes bold policy positions that are to the left, it’s going to be so much easier to make this race about him.
DANNY DIAZ: One other point: A big gift to Biden is that the convention isn’t going to go off the way it was, and the Bernie people are not going to be able to mess with the platform and get the level of attention that they would otherwise.
BETH HANSEN: You can’t become somebody that you’re not, and people know he’s not a progressive. His intensity’s going to have to come from anti-Trump.
TIM ALBERTA: Jeff, back in 2016, Donald Trump felt compelled to release a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. He was overtly courting a section of the Republican electorate that was distrustful of him, and that helped him turn that base out come November. Does Biden have to do something similar?
JEFF ROE: For sure. I think—first of all, to your point, [Trump] released the names, he nominated Mike Pence, he did everything, completely guided by the [theory of] a base election. His team completely got it. They had a choice between Chris Christie and Mike Pence, and you see the results. You’ve got to think about the predicate of the parties: We have to get 60 percent of the 70 percent of the white voters to vote for us, and the Democrats have to get 85 percent of the 30 percent of the nonwhites to vote for them. Joe Biden is not going to get 85 percent of 30 percent, and neither did Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton could have picked Tom Perez, a finalist, Cory Booker or Tim Kaine. And the Clintons, they were middle campaigners—“the middle will get you elected.” They ran ads from Republicans talking about how bad Donald Trump was, thinking they were going to get Republican votes in the last 30 days of the election. The middle is not where the votes are. It’s the base—and Biden doesn’t have them. There’s no surrogate that can fix that for him. He has to fix that. And the biggest and best way for him to fix that is with the VP.
TIM ALBERTA: I’ll put you on the spot then. Who does Biden pick? If this is a base election, who should he pick?
JEFF ROE: I’d likely pick Kamala Harris. I don’t even think a woman’s enough. I think he needs to have a minority woman. But I could tell you who not to pick. What is Amy Klobuchar going to get him? What does the governor of Michigan get him? He has to have a balanced ticket. I understand the need to have somebody that can be president. The Democrats have to believe that; the independents have to believe it, but I think Kamala Harris is his only choice. If you believe in base politics, it’s the only choice.
BETH HANSEN: I would say it goes a little bit beyond base. What it gets him—and you said this just a second ago, Jeff—it gets you enough of the base without freaking people out. And that’s the balance. I would argue that he can’t pick somebody that it’s just going to be so clear it’s not a good fit for who he is. I mean, he does have a reputation of [chuckles] 150 years in politics, and people know who he is, and they know that he is a pragmatic, middle of the road, blue collar, centrist, populist kind of a leader. And so, picking somebody that’s just asynchronous for that, I think will not help him. But he’s got to get enough of that intensity and that base and something different. He’s got to get something going, and for all—because everybody else is disqualified, I think you do end up with Kamala Harris.
TIM ALBERTA: Wow. Two-for-two on Kamala Harris. Danny, what do you say?
DANNY DIAZ: I kind of think to myself, when was the last time that a VP selection really made a seismic impact on a presidential contest? Do I have to go back to Kennedy and LBJ? Once again, opinions are largely formed on the president and [Biden] is going to be able to run against the president. I do think Kamala Harris does a number of things for his candidacy. But ultimately, both sides should be energized because of one thing: the president.
TERRY SULLIVAN: Danny didn’t make a pick, did he?
TIM ALBERTA: Yeah, Danny, you weaseled your way out of that one. Who’s your pick?
DANNY DIAZ: You like that, don’t you? I think there’s an argument for Harris, but at the same time, there’s an argument for Warren.
TERRY SULLIVAN: If you want to make sure that you don’t raise any super PAC money, there’d be an argument for Warren, because there’s not a single big donor that’s going to give any super PAC money unless they’re like some total communist, because they’re all scared shitless of her. But I think that’s why Harris would be—she’s just left of center enough. She checks a lot of boxes. They’ve got to be able to turn that minority vote out. But most importantly, I think she’s just vanilla enough that she doesn’t scare people. And I think their campaign—and Jeff and I will disagree on this—I think their campaign needs to be very careful to not scare middle-of-the-road voters. At the end of the day, they hated Hillary and they just couldn’t get their head around voting for [her]. I think that Joe Biden should become just a shadow of a candidate. If this is about Donald Trump, it is the best shot for Joe Biden to win.
JEFF ROE: Democrats have the same philosophy now that we had in ’16—whoever runs against Hillary can beat her. Half of the party voted for Bernie Sanders last time. He was the market leader with 35, 40 percent this time. They are not going to accept two Joe Bidens. They are not going to do it. Trump doesn’t provide enough—they hate Trump, yeah, but they still have to go vote. And it is shown time and time again that intensity, when we nominate middle-of-the-road candidates and when they nominate middle-of-the-road candidates, they do terrible. Bob Dole was our worst candidates in a generation, and John Kerry was the worst candidate for them. You can’t do a centrist move in this day and age—we have Donald Trump and Barack Obama to prove the point.
TIM ALBERTA: On the eve of the Michigan primary, Biden held this rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit where he had a number of high-profile surrogates come out. You know who stole the show? It wasn’t Cory Booker. It wasn’t Gretchen Whitmer. It wasn’t Joe Biden. It was Kamala Harris. And I said to people there, “Wouldn’t it have been interesting if she had been waging her presidential campaign in high school gyms in Detroit instead of coffee shops in Des Moines?” It’s just a completely different vibe for her. And if you’re looking at where Hillary Clinton struggled—in Wayne County, Michigan, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, in the Philly ring of suburbs and in Philly itself—black voters were not energized. So, when Stacey Abrams comes out says, “It can’t just be a woman; it has to be a woman of color,” isn’t that what she’s speaking to? Does Elizabeth Warren go into a high school gym in Detroit and fire people up? Does Amy Klobuchar?
JEFF ROE: Yeah, I think the answer is very known. There’s nobody else that will do that. Not even Elizabeth Warren; she can get them roused in a way, but not energetic. I think at the end of the deal, [Harris] rallies would be better covered than [Biden] rallies. She would be the Sarah Palin energy that John McCain lacked.
TIM ALBERTA: Speaking of Palin, at this point 12 years ago, somebody would have looked like a genius if they had said, “You know, there’s a real dark horse here. Keep an eye on this sleeper pick, this governor in Alaska.” So, I want to give the four of you an opportunity to look really smart or really dumb. Give me a sleeper pick for VP.
TERRY SULLIVAN: I think I start with the fact that I would assume that no one on Biden’s team is as dumb—[stops himself]. Well, I don’t think anybody’s making the same decision that Steve Schmidt made. I’ll stick with that.
TIM ALBERTA: So, you’re squirming your way out of giving me a sleeper pick?
TERRY SULLIVAN: Picking someone who has been somewhat vetted means a lot. It means a tremendous amount, not just vetted from an oppo-research standpoint but vetted having gone through interviews. There is absolutely nothing better to prepare you to run for president or vice president than having done it and until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it so they are crazy if they pick someone who is untested and a sleeper who is a governor from some damn state. Because it’s a crap shoot and even if they’re the most dynamic individual on the planet Earth, it’s really hard.
JEFF ROE: I’ve got Val Demings. She’s my sleeper.
TIM ALBERTA: Congresswoman from Florida.
JEFF ROE: Yep, she’s from the right part of Florida. She’s talented. She’s an up-and-comer. She knows how to play kind of inside baseball. I’m not seeing a lot of her on the stump; she’s probably never spoken in front of 15,000 people before, but she’s well-spoken. She does a great job. She has a great delivery. She’s got a pretty good story. I think she’d be a sleeper.
BETH HANSEN: The answer to your question—it will never happen—but the answer is Michelle Obama.
DANNY DIAZ: I was going to say that. I was going to say Michelle Obama. But I’ll throw one out: Kyrsten Sinema.
TIM ALBERTA: Put Arizona in play.
TERRY SULLIVAN: Then fine, my pick is Oprah.
[EVERYONE: Laughter, crosstalk, mentions of Cardi B.]
TIM ALBERTA: Let’s talk about some demographic groups, and I want to bring this full circle to Covid-19. Here in Michigan, we’ve got the third-highest death toll in the country, and a disproportionate number are African Americans. There’s another population that looms large, which is the elderly: There was a Morning Consult poll last week that showed, among voters 65 and older, a big swing in approve-disapprove of Trump and also in Trump-Biden horse race numbers. Jeff, in the context of this debate over prioritizing public health versus economic health, what are the politics of targeting certain demographic groups?
JEFF ROE: If you’re older or already sick or overweight, you’ve got a better chance of dying if you get this thing. The market took a bath but has regained a bunch of [what it lost], and so the economic insecurity is not quite imperiling seniors in the same way. They’re probably retired. So, the economic concern will never catch up to the health concern for them. But that economic crisis number has already moved 10 points in the last seven days [among all voters]. Typically, a president in this time would get a lift from this, from being on TV every two hours. And there was a time that he was getting a lift, there was a time that he was down, but he’s just returned to static numbers. I don’t see in our surveys a lot of people holding him accountable. It’s completely diverted back to normal partisan lines. It’s like, “I’m a Republican. I think he’s doing fine. I’m a Democrat. I think he sucks.” So, I think this washes out over a period of time.
DANNY DIAZ: Many of these communities have been just devastated by Covid-19 are not going to be rectified by Election Day. And if you look at the Journal poll among independent voters who really matter here, they view the health impact almost 2 to 1 over the economic impact. That really matters. And look, what we haven’t talked about is how organizing and turning out the voters really, really matters. All of these state legislatures have got to come back and figure out how they’re going to tend to their elections. And if you’re an older voter or if you have these health discrepancies that Jeff mentioned, how are you going to vote on Election Day? Are you going to show up and are you going to vote, or are you going to feel like that it’s a risk to your personal health?
TIM ALBERTA: Terry, piggyback off Danny’s point, talking about just how the mechanics of running a fall campaign now are so different. You’re not going to have traditional ground games, all of these canvassers, all of these organizations out on the ground. Early voting, mail voting is going to look different. Talk to me about how, if you’re running Biden’s campaign or if you’re running Trump’s campaign for that matter, how you’re thinking about the need to adjust and run a mechanically different campaign this fall.
TERRY SULLIVAN: I think that’s the billion-dollar question. First, it relates to the mail voting. Look, there are 11 states where there need to be legislative fixes to actually allow seniors to vote by mail. And it’s not an easy thing to do. But the other part of your question, look, who the heck knows? We are in brave new territory. How you do this kind of organizing, how do you create energy? Everything we know about campaigns, frankly, is thrown up in the air. How do you energize people remotely? How do you ID people the same way? Now, in every crisis, there’s danger and opportunity. And so the danger is you can’t get people in crowds, you can’t have that door-to-door stuff. But the opportunity is we are getting higher response rates in our polling than ever before. Dramatically more people are willing to pick up the damn phone—
TIM ALBERTA: Because they’ve got nothing better to do, right?
TERRY SULLIVAN: Got nothing better to do. “Oh, yeah, this is an unknown number on my caller ID. I don’t care. Sure, this is a 20-minute poll? Happy to talk to you!” I mean, it’s insane. If it’s easier for me to get people on the phone that way and they’re willing to get more engaged in that way, then there’s the opportunity.
BETH HANSEN: I completely agree with what Terry is saying, and I think that we are going to see several phases and I don’t even think we know how many phases. There is this phase now where just odd things are happening. People have time. They’re watching more public affairs on television. They have time to talk to pollsters. They’re having in-depth conversations with their friends and neighbors and relatives and family and whatnot about current events. We’re just in this funny stage. At some point, we’re going to begin to come out of it and then what does that look like and what do we look like going into the fall? You look at states that are all-mail vote, you look at early voting, the patchwork that we have, a lot of this is going to be, physically, how do you turn people out? How do you turn people out if states are saying they can’t have people going and touching voting screens? And you have to figure that out far enough in advance for people to print ballots and mail ballots. It’s just going to be logistically a very difficult situation. Even if you’ve got the intensity, how the heck do you actually physically get people to vote?
DANNY DIAZ: Tim, one point. The [Milwaukee] Journal Sentinel did a report on the Wisconsin system. They used the words “leaking from all sides, buckling kind of under the weight of a global pandemic, partisan bickering.” Like, we can’t get enough cotton swabs to test for coronavirus. The notion that our electoral system in just a few months is going to be hunky dory with respect to the process, I think, is an overly idealistic view. So, you look back at things that you can bank on: a $ 200 million advantage, the [Republican National Committee] has converted its turnout effort to digital. You look at the weakness of the Biden digital effort. You look at the ability to organize within your social networks and whatnot. To me, that’s going to matter. I think door-to-door is gone away. That’s how a lot of us measured the success of our campaigns through contact in the past. That’s not going to be the case this time around. And the presidential campaign that adapts the best—in a close race—that’s going to be the outcome.
TIM ALBERTA: To Beth’s point about turnout: Based on the astronomical numbers we saw in 2018 and this intensity in the electorate over the past four years, I think we all expected that not only would turnout in 2020 be significantly higher than turnout in 2016, but maybe higher to a historic precedent, maybe some of the highest presidential turnout ever. Do any of you now think we could actually see turnout lower in November 2020 t‘han it was in 2016?
TERRY SULLIVAN: We can’t predict right now when we can actually go into a restaurant again. There’s no way we would predict what turnout is going to be due to this. We just don’t know.
JEFF ROE: I don’t think it was ever going to be the highest election turnout in history and I don’t think this is going to make it the lowest. I think it’s going to be north of ’16. I think it will be along the ’08, probably a little bit south of the ’08 lines. And I think people find a way to vote. I think if they try to do a vote-by-mail system—I agree with Danny’s point, that when they try and do things that they haven’t done before, the electorate is not as mobile. If you look at any state that introduces a new concept of voting, it takes a while for them to build it up. I think if someone wants to vote and they historically participate—or they’re a new voter and they want to participate—I think they put on a mask and gloves and get to the polls.
DANNY DIAZ: One prediction, that if it’s a close race, issues like ballot harvesting in some of these states, in the litigious nature of our business, are going to be exacerbated.
JEFF ROE: Yeah, if it’s a close election, we won’t know who won until a week later, which would test the strength of our republic.
TIM ALBERTA: I didn’t want to take it there and get too dark, but I am wondering if any of you have laid awake at night recently wondering about some scenarios that could play out if we’ve got a highly competitive, highly contentious election taking place under unprecedented circumstances and there are rumors and reports of foul play or interference in some way shape or form, how that plays out.
TERRY SULLIVAN: I think that it was going to be unbelievably contentious and [full of] finger-pointing before this, especially if Trump loses. If Trump were to lose on Election Day, I was convinced two years ago that this was going to be a real, real test of our democracy, of our society. Because there is no way in hell that that guy loses, if he does, and not blame everyone else on planet Earth for cheating. I think this just adds fuel to the fire. I don’t see a scenario where he just says, “Aw, geez, man, I got beat. I’m out of here.”
TIM ALBERTA: Let’s close on just talking the raw politics of Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, this general election matchup. Terry, you had gone on record boldly before anybody else did in this group and you said, “If Joe Biden is the nominee, then it’s over. Donald Trump loses.” Do you still feel that way?
TERRY SULLIVAN: Did I say that?
TIM ALBERTA: You did. In Austin.
TERRY SULLIVAN: Was it on tape?
TIM ALBERTA: It’s on tape in Austin, Texas.
DANNY DIAZ: Hey, there was no alcohol in Austin—
TERRY SULLIVAN: I think that there was enough alcohol the night before that I still might have been feeling it.
TIM ALBERTA: But does the nature of things now change your outlook? You were very bullish on Joe Biden being the ideal candidate to defeat Donald Trump.
TERRY SULLIVAN: Yeah, I still am, but I feel like—I go back to, it is so hard to predict anything now with any sort of certainty. But I do feel like that he is certainly the best shot the Democrats have. I can’t handicap it right now because there’s just so many unknowns and Trump is doing an hour-, two-hourlong news conference every single day that has higher ratings than anything. He’s the master of his own destiny right now in so many ways.
DANNY DIAZ: Let me say this, that in a really volatile kind of environment, there are things you can bank on. [Trump] has a $ 200 million advantage, OK? He’s got the power of incumbency. Since 1932, two incumbents have lost. You look at the digital play: 4.6 million Twitter followers [for Biden] to 75 million [for Trump]. You look at the ability for him to drive a message and how this environment allows for it. I just believe the push goes to the incumbent in this case in spite of everything that’s going on. But certainly, to Terry’s point, Biden was the most challenging candidate for Trump.
TIM ALBERTA: Beth, you said all along that Joe Biden was going to be the safest bet for Democrats to defeat Donald Trump. In hindsight, now that we’re living under these incredible circumstances that were totally unforeseen, is there anything about Joe Biden, be it his age, be it his propensity for gaffes, whatever, that makes you think, “Boy, had we know this was coming, maybe there was somebody who’d be a better pick?”
BETH HANSEN: In my opinion, no. In my opinion, he continues to be the best out of that field. The best of that field because he is so known as a centrist. The needle that he has to thread is how does he motivate and consolidate the base without alienating those people who voted for Donald Trump not because they wanted Donald Trump, but because they didn’t want Hillary Clinton? I still think he is the best for them. The question is whether or not he can motivate—not only motivate the base, but then get them out to vote in these logistically challenging times.
TIM ALBERTA: Jeff, I think it’s fair to say you’ve been the most bullish on Trump’s reelection prospects of this group. But you have also said that Biden creates real problems for Trump—with some of these suburban voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and also with some of the Obama/Trump voters in the more exurban and rural parts of those states. I want to read something that you said in our first roundtable. I said, “Donald Trump wins reelection if…,” and you said, “if the Dow stays above 24,000, if job growth continues, and if Democrats nominate somebody to the left of the party.” Suddenly, you’re 0-for-3. So, is Joe Biden in the catbird seat now? Or has Covid-19 completely changed the way you view those dynamics?
JEFF ROE: Thank you for Tim Russert-ing me. I was actually prepared for that. The Dow closed today at 23,475. We just lost 30 million or 20 million jobs, and so whatever the bottom of this looks like, it’s going to look better towards Election Day. So, I actually think those two things still apply. But what I didn’t know then that I have now witnessed, we did nine focus groups in seven states and closing out right in through the primaries, the early March primaries and we didn’t talk to any Republicans, we didn’t talk to any Democrats. We tried to talk to only Independent voters. And the word cloud around Joe Biden was, “He’s lost a step.” That was not the word cloud around Joe Biden [at the beginning of the campaign]. It was much more what Beth says: “centrist” and “blue collar” and “Amtrak” and all of those things. After he’s campaigned for those intervening six months, it is literally—Danny’s hit on it a couple of times—it’s that he’s lost a step. Biden has always been gaffe-prone and not really a big deal. It was kind of almost quirky and cute when he would say stupid things. Now, it goes to his central competence because people are viewing it through a different lens for a different job.
TERRY SULLIVAN: It’s more Trump branding than it is reality.
JEFF ROE: I don’t think that’s right. It’s not like Trump had months to waylay him. Joe Biden had just gone through a primary environment. We were doing [the focus groups] through the Democratic primaries where nobody was really touching him. I’m telling you, when Trump makes a mistake, it reinforces the brand. I’m just saying that [Biden] has a real problem with what his new word cloud is. It’s not “moderate.” It’s not “bipartisan.” It’s not “reach across the aisle.” It’s not “sleepy,” although Trump could maybe fix that. It’s “He’s lost a step.”
DANNY DIAZ: The choice is A versus B. How does [Biden] perform in the pressure cooker? I think there’s ample reason to be concerned about how he will perform in the pressure cooker.
BETH HANSEN: What it comes down to is how the economy looks by the time the fall rolls around, and whether [the Trump administration] is able to get it back together. And I just think it’s going to be difficult. And maybe [Biden] has lost a step. But I’m not sure if the economy is very poor and the country has been ravaged by Covid-19, I’m not sure that people aren’t going to say it’s time to give somebody else a chance.