Biden 2024 is Starting to Look Like Hillary 2016

Posted on Friday, April 19, 2024
by Walter Samuel


President Joe Biden delivers remarks alongside Taoiseach of Ireland Leo Varadkar at a St. Patrick’s Day reception, Sunday, March 17, 2024, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Is the political media repeating the errors of 2016?

Eight years ago, virtually all coverage of the 2016 campaign started with a presumption: Donald Trump was a uniquely weak candidate, leading a divided party, and running a campaign that was presumably both underfunded and disorganized.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton, if not beloved – that much had to be conceded to reality based on Bernie Sanders’ primary performance – was at least the “devil” voters knew. Her campaign, combining the resources of the entire political and economic establishment, was perceived as a machine. How could it be anything else when it combined the talent of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama networks? 

With the notable exception of a few insightful reporters such as Matt Taibbi, these presumptions guided nearly all analysis and coverage of the 2016 campaign. Convinced that Republicans were more divided over Donald Trump than Democrats over Hillary Clinton, reporters sought out Trump critics while dismissing the blue-collar Democratic voters who swarmed to Trump rallies as isolated exceptions.

When confronted with the bizarre strategic decisions of the Clinton high command, the press reported in awe about the brilliance of the campaign’s targeting algorithms rather than its absence from Wisconsin. If anything, that Clinton was spending in Arizona and Texas was proof of how far ahead she was. Taibbi was almost alone in questioning whether the Clinton campaign’s obsession with expensive ads over rallies represented an inability to get anyone to volunteer or show up.

The result was that Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016 struck the American political class like a thunderbolt out of the blue, one which Dave Chapelle immortalized in one of SNL’s few genuinely brilliant sketches of the past decade.

The irony is that the result should not have come as such a surprise. The evidence was there. Bernie Sanders had won nearly 44 percent of the vote in the Democratic primaries against the combined strength of the Democratic establishment. The polls at most showed a 3 to 4 percent Clinton lead for much of the race, and results well within the margin of error in key swing states. They chose to start with a narrative and ignore facts that conflicted with it.

Like the French Bourbons, the American political class has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The last three months have seen a notable shift in coverage. Op-eds calling for Joe Biden to drop out of the race, ubiquitous last fall, have all but vanished. So too have speculative pieces about the supposed disasters that might occur under a second Trump administration.

They have been replaced instead with breathless reporting of the financial advantage enjoyed by the Biden campaign, listing the number of paid staffers in key states with a level of detail that could only have come from spreadsheets provided by the Biden communications team. TV networks and papers compete to interview Nikki Haley voters to highlight divisions within the Republican Party, while a shift in polling averages from a two percent Trump lead in January to a tie today prompts a string of “Trump is doomed” think pieces.

The current coverage echoes what we saw during the late spring of 2016, refusing to place stories in perspective and ignoring any data points that indicate weaknesses for the Biden campaign.

Let’s take polling, for example. While Trump’s advantage has waned somewhat from the 3 percent lead he saw at the end of January, RealClearPolitics still has him leading Joe Biden ever so slightly, by 0.2 percent. This hardly seems reflected in the media coverage, which could cause those following it to believe Biden had a 5-to-7-point lead.

The media’s coverage only makes sense under the assumption that the only direction Trump’s numbers can go is down – the same mistake they made in 2016. Joe Biden’s fundraiser with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, which brought in $25 million, was reported as evidence of a built-in financial advantage, while Donald Trump’s fundraiser a week later in Palm Beach, which brought in $50 million, was largely ignored.

The media has been eager to showcase Haley’s voters, but in many cases struggled to find ones who didn’t already vote for Joe Biden in 2020.

The decision by 2020 Biden voters to cross over and vote in the Republican primary for Nikki Haley can be interpreted as a sign of weakness not for Donald Trump but for Joe Biden, especially if they indicate they would have voted for Haley in a general election. If these 2020 Biden voters supported him, they would not be looking for other options.

This is merely one example of how many of the data points being cited in favor of Biden’s strength can also be seen as evidence of weakness. Stories that report on the scale of the Biden campaign’s hiring in swing states coexist alongside coverage of how young voters, along with both Muslim and Jewish Americans, are refusing to canvass. Joe Biden is hiring out-of-state paid staff for Michigan not merely because he is as rich as Croesus, but because no locals are willing to work for him for free, nor are many local party officials.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s refusal to hold large, in-person events was portrayed as evidence of the strength of a campaign that did not need to resort to such labor-intensive tasks, while Donald Trump’s rally-centric approach was seen as a desperate expedient adopted by a cash-strapped campaign. In 2024, Joe Biden also has an excuse for why he cannot conduct events with more than a few hundred supporters. The President of the United States, the man supposedly on the verge of running away with the election, is unable to appear in public without his own party’s supporters trying to violently disrupt events while accusing him of genocide.

While the media is quick to dismiss the theory that Joe Biden’s inability to appear in public without protest is evidence of his unpopularity, they also ignore the fact that Donald Trump, who is supposedly toxic, faces no such challenges. In 2016, and also in 2020, Trump’s events regularly attracted hecklers and protestors.

In 2024, Donald Trump can travel into what was previously Democratic territory unmolested, such as his recent trip to a Chick-fil-A in Atlanta where the largely African American clientele rushed to embrace and be photographed with the former president. Days later, he appeared at a bodega in New York City, and was warmly greeted by the working class crowds on the street. As expected, the media and Democrats dismissed this, ignoring what it may portend for them this November.

Trump’s visits to Chick-fil-A and the bodega, it should be noted, were not officially scheduled events, and the crowds were unvetted. This was the organic reaction of a typical crowd at the restaurant in a supposed Democrat stronghold.

When Biden’s team tried to replicate Trump’s retail stops this week, the patrons of those establishments seemed largely uninterested in the arrival of the President of the United States. That might qualify as a good reception. In many Democratic strongholds, the response to Joe Biden visiting a fast-food restaurant and ordering a milkshake would be for it to be thrown back in his face by a young worker screaming “Free Palestine.”

Whether or not Donald Trump’s enthusiastic reception at the Chick-fil-A means something is unclear, but the fact that Joe Biden could never dream of replicating such events certainly does. At the very least, it should cause informed observers to question assumptions that every voter who is unhappy with their options will automatically default to viewing Joe Biden as the lesser of two evils.

As in 2016, the political media is not interested in asking questions for which they are already certain they know the answer. They may be right. If they are wrong, the result will be shock that would not occur if they properly interrogated the available evidence.

The narrative bubble may even produce the opposite outcome. Democrats, as the party of the media establishment, are far more influenced by coverage than the Trump campaign when it comes to strategic decisions. While Hillary Clinton may well have avoided setting foot in Wisconsin no matter what the New York Times or Washington Post said, profiles praising Robby Mook’s algorithm certainly fed complacency within the campaign and provided ammunition for Mook to rebuff detractors.

The Biden campaign will believe the media narrative because they want to. The Trump team cannot afford to, so will need to pick holes in it to identify weaknesses. That difference may well define the election.

Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.

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