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JONAH GOLDBERG: After mostly bad re-election news, Biden has one choice

One of Joe Biden’s favorite campaign lines is, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” In the wake of a series of polls this month, Democrats were thrown into a panic because voters in key battleground states did exactly that and chose Donald Trump as their preferred candidate.

The public freak-out abated a bit following off-year elections in which Democrats scored some wins in Virginia, Kentucky and, most importantly, Ohio. But in private, Democrats remain very worried. And they should be. If the election were held today, Biden would almost surely lose.

The good news for Biden is that the “if the election were held today” framing isn’t a particularly fruitful way of thinking about an election a year out. If Trump is the GOP nominee — still an “if,” but not that big of one — a tsunami of negative ads and negative coverage will quickly follow.

But will it work? It’s not like Trump coverage has been all that positive until now. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report notes that Trump’s support in most battleground states is almost exactly his share of the vote in 2020. Trump hasn’t gained a lot of supporters, but he hasn’t lost many either. It’s Biden who has lost voters across the board. In 2020, Biden won the Electoral College thanks to a mere 43,000 votes across Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. Trump now leads in two of those states.

Complicating things more: dissatisfaction with a Biden-Trump choice is inviting competition. As of now, I think a third-party run would be doomed. But it’s not hard to see how Cornel West, Jill Stein (running for the Green Party), Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or potentially Joe Manchin as a No Labels candidate, could peel off more than enough voters to guarantee a Trump Electoral College victory (though it’s very possible that Kennedy, an anti-vax crank, could take more votes from Trump than Biden).

I think Biden got himself into this mess in part because he made the very common mistake of over-reading his 2020 victory and raising expectations for his presidency. Again, you would think Biden wouldn’t have made this mistake and not just because of the whole “compare me to the alternative” shtick. The data were clear all along that large numbers of Biden voters voted against Trump, not for Biden.

In a large Morning Consult 2020 survey of people who voted for Biden, 44 percent said that they cast their ballot as “more of a vote against Donald Trump.”

It should be noted that some number of those voters were not anti-Trump Republicans, swing-voting independents and moderates, as many analysts often assume. Some were well to his left. After all, it’s as easy to imagine a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren voter saying they were voting against Trump rather than for Biden as it is to imagine a Liz Cheney Republican saying it.

Biden’s dilemma — and his only path out — can be found in the fact that he has lost support from both the anti-Trump forces and moderate Republicans. Significant numbers of young, Black and Latino Democrats have turned sour on Biden, and so have independents. In July 2021 — before the Afghanistan withdrawal — Biden had 61 percent support among independents. Now it’s 37 percent.

The response to these dismal numbers from Democrats — at least in public — is to point out that President Barack Obama was also polling very badly during the same period in 2011, and yet Obama went on to beat his opponent, Sen. Mitt Romney, handily. Fair enough. But does anyone think Biden can campaign the way Obama did? Do they think he has the special bond with young and minority voters that Obama had?

Because of Biden’s “age” — a catch-all label for his chronological age but also his mental acuity and energy level — the Biden campaign is already contemplating a Rose Garden strategy to mirror his 2020 “basement” strategy. The difference between now and then is that Biden had COVID-19 to justify running from the basement in 2020. Now, avoiding the campaign trail will simply reinforce the idea that he doesn’t have the energy to hit the hustings.

The president’s only path is to solidify and expand the anti-Trump coalition, not the pro-Biden coalition, including newly energetic abortion-rights supporters. It’s very hard to see how he can manage to make a lot of Democrats very excited to vote for Joe Biden. But he can make them excited to vote against Donald Trump. So expect to hear “don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative” for the next year.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His X handle is @JonahDispatch.

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