Chuck Todd: Is Biden or Trump the bigger drag on his party?

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If there is one consistent pattern developing this spring in political polling, both nationally and in the battleground states, it’s how differently voters are treating the presidential race and the down-ballot races, at least at the moment.

Obviously, it’s possible this pattern doesn’t hold come Election Day and we will see voters correlate their presidential votes and their votes for Congress. After all, it has become quite rare recently for a Senate candidate to win a state the top of their ticket fails to carry in a presidential year. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is the lone exception since 2012.

That having been said, this week’s results from The New York Times’ surveys of the presidential battlegrounds indicate that Democrats have a Biden problem right now more than a party-brand problem.

In every state where the new polls tested Biden, there was at least one Democrat performing better. Across the board, Democrats were ahead or tied in every Senate race tested.

There are other potential explanations for this, including the power of incumbency, because three of the battleground Senate races (Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania) feature sitting Democratic senators.

But consider, too, how the Democratic governors are all polling better than Biden in the battleground states. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s job rating was a whopping 19 points better than Biden’s in the Times poll of the state.

Meanwhile, there’s Donald Trump and the fact that he is polling better than every Republican Senate candidate in the battlegrounds. To put it another way, Biden is less popular than the Democratic brand, while Trump is more popular than the Republican brand.

So what’s going on here? Is it that the Democratic candidates in the battleground states are running and governing as moderates? Folks like Shapiro and Sen. Bob Casey, his fellow Pennsylvanian, have spent a lot of money over the years straddling the middle of the ideological spectrum, and those efforts have paid off. Conversely, the GOP has spent a lot of time and effort trying to rebrand Biden as a Democrat who can’t say no to the left, as opposed to a moderate, and it’s an image that’s starting to stick with some voters.

Political campaigns are, as I constantly like to remind folks, binary choices. There’s rarely a perfect candidate to support, so many voters have to make picks based on the options available — though this year, voting third party or skipping the vote for president are also viable “choices.”

So let’s bottom-line this: The Democratic Party has a Biden problem. This has arguably been a concern ever since Biden took the oath of office in 2021. Six months ago, the hand-wringing among Democrats who were concerned about Biden’s viability was over his age — but that was a proxy for a larger issue in his struggles: the perception of weakness.

As I explain in my podcast this week, this perception of weakness is unique to Biden — and not the Democratic Party brand as a whole — right now. And while his State of the Union performance was enough to quiet the age arguments, Biden hasn’t improved on some of the subtler “strong versus weak” arguments. They include what may be the biggest problem he has with the electorate: the idea that either he’s not interested in changing the status quo or he’s too weak to make changes to the status quo.

Whatever one thinks of Trump, the voters clearly believe he will fulfill his promise to continue to shake up Washington and the status quo. And as long as you have an electorate that wants change — especially among the remaining undecided voters — that’s a powerful advantage for Trump.

Can the Biden campaign fix this image issue? Given our short-attention-span information ecosystem, one can always assume there’s time to change perception, but it’s getting difficult.

The most obvious way to try to improve Biden’s weakness perception is to put Biden out there more often and in more places that aren’t so controlled. And while he has been out more, he’s still limited in his unscripted public appearances. The Biden campaign publicly likes to blame the legacy media for some of Biden’s perception problems — that somehow The New York Times’ coverage has hurt him. But as NBC News’ most recent national polling showed, Biden’s image with voters who consume a high level of legacy media is quite good. Biden’s image problems are with the rest of America, the 40% to 60% of the country that consumes information via other ecosystems — places Biden has rarely trekked.

Going on Howard Stern’s radio show was a start, but Biden needs to widen his aperture even more. It has always been odd to me how so few presidential candidates not named Trump have tried to borrow Trump’s “all of the above” media strategy from 2016. Even now, Trump is more likely to show up on a liberal show than Biden is on a conservative show. Of course, if the campaign and the White House had confidence in their principal, perhaps Biden would be showing up in more unusual places in the media ecosystem. But for now, they still seem to be using him cautiously.

And the way I see it, that caution is getting translated into weakness by voters, and that’s never a good place for any presidential candidate to be.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama pulled off their comebacks as sitting presidents at least partially because of the force of their personalities, not despite it. If Biden ends up winning this race for re-election, it’ll likely be because of tactics, not his personality. Biden isn’t in a situation in which he has to figure out how to win despite his inability to speak to every part of the electorate.

That presents the Biden campaign with quite the dilemma. Does it try to fix his problems or simply go scorched-earth on his opponent? The problem with going even more negative on Trump is this: How much more information do voters need about him?

Perhaps abortion is the one area in which the electorate could move with more information about Trump’s role tipping the makeup of the Supreme Court before it overturned Roe v. Wade and gave states free rein to set abortion policy.

(As an aside, if you needed more proof we live in a fragmented media climate, check out the number of voters, anywhere from 15% to 20% in polls I’ve seen, who think Biden was somehow responsible because the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision happened while he was president.)

But beyond Trump’s role on abortion, what new information can Biden introduce about him that will move a voter? Ultimately, he has to convince the remaining winnable voters of three things:

First, that he is trying to change things and that he plans to make more changes in a second term.

Second, as I wrote last week, he also needs to accept some voter blame for the situation the country is in right now and credibly promise a course correction.

And third, he can convince voters he’s not a conventional Democrat. One of Trump’s strengths during this moment of unpopularity for both parties is that he’s almost as critical of Republicans as he is of Democrats. The rhetoric gives him credibility with the “I don’t like any politician” voters.

Paradoxically, I think one of the reasons many of the battleground-state Democrats out-poll Biden is that they are all seen as more willing to buck their party than Biden is. And they certainly showcase any time they do buck their party. In this current environment, with the voters who remain gettable, I think I’d rather be the candidate who is seen as critical of both political parties.

The biggest reason I’m not sure more negative attacks on Trump will work is that the voters Biden needs the most right now are voters who have been flooded with Trump attacks for eight years. Even if you think those voters don’t know all the negatives about Trump they should know, they certainly believe they’ve got all the information they need.

Can Biden still win this election? I think so, because Trump certainly knows how to lose an election. But can Biden win the campaign and change the conversation swing voters are having come October? I’m starting to think that might be too steep a hill for him now.

Hot takes that deserve more debate

One of the more underrated “Saturday Night Live” skits of my late youth/early adulthood was Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk” with his character Linda Richman, a spoof of daytime talk shows. I used to use Myers’ absurd setups during his “verklempt” moments as ways to set up discussions during staff meetings over the years. For instance: “Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island, discuss.”

So it’s in that spirit that I empty my punditry notebook for the week with two topics: Trump’s trial and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s worm.

Starting with the trial, let’s be honest: This trial has cheapened the legal challenges Trump faces, because Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg chose to become the first prosecutor to indict him and is now running the only show in town, meaning it serves as the opening act for all of Trump’s other legal issues.

And Trump appears to have used this trial exactly the way many sober voices in Washington (who all counseled Bragg against bringing the charges) said would happen: to turn it into a political dispute (and even a borderline circus). We can debate the merits of whether anyone is above the law, but we can also ask why Trump is being prosecuted on a felony charge that nobody else might have faced.

It says a lot that this trial is seen as politically safe enough for Republican elected officials — even those from swing-ish states (think Sen. Rick Scott of Florida) — to show up and be Trump’s voice to criticize the process. That’s how polarized the trial is to the public.

Why isn’t this specific trial and this specific story, of paying off a porn actor to cover up an affair, getting voter traction? One potential answer: Voters have already processed that part of Trump’s character.

The “Access Hollywood” tape came out in October 2016. Trump’s crude beliefs and behavior were on display for all to see and hear. Trump won despite the character misgivings. It’s similar to why Republicans got so little political traction using Monica Lewinsky to get Clinton back in the late ’90s.

Clinton’s being a cad with women wasn’t new information for voters — it was information that was used over and over again against Clinton during his first campaign. Voters knew whom they were electing when he won.

The only time such political trials or legal attacks can work is if they introduce new information or, more specifically, new character flaws that voters didn’t know the first time.

There was one serious crime to target Trump with — his actions after the 2020 election, leading up to and including Jan. 6. Everything else was and is a sideshow to the voters, whether you like it or not. And I’m not sure any conviction in the New York case moves any needle. What should concern those who believe Trump should be held accountable for his Jan. 6 actions is that the current trial has already colored other legal proceedings with a political tint, lessening the impact of the most important trial — assuming it even gets to trial this calendar year.

The worm turns for RFK Jr.

I won’t lie: I couldn’t get enough about the weird brain-eating worm story Kennedy told during a deposition 12 years ago during his divorce. As fantastical as the story is (cue the “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” memes), there’s one thing that bothers me about it. We have only Kennedy’s version of the story in The New York Times’ report last week.

The fact that he claimed to have brain fog or forgetfulness during important divorce proceedings seems quite relevant to the story itself. Apparently, according to the Times story, the issue of having memory problems was important for Kennedy to prove that his earning power, for the purposes of alimony, was diminished.

But given Kennedy’s history of credibility problems on a lot of science-based issues, just how seriously should his health claims be taken without some independent medical review? For something as bizarre and unique as this health ailment, full disclosure seems the most appropriate course of action if Kennedy wants to be taken more seriously. In fact, a full disclosure that backed up his health claims might change the narrative about his forthrightness.

If Kennedy really wanted to make the health of Trump and Biden the focus, he’d do what John McCain did in 2008: release 2,000-plus pages of his medical records, drowning the media and his opponents in transparency. Let’s see whether the Kennedy campaign can back up this story with some supporting evidence; more important, let’s see whether it even thinks transparency is a good idea.

This week on the Chuck ToddCast from NBC News, Ben Resnik and Matt Hodges of Zinc Labs, a political group at the intersection of tech and politics. Sign up to get new episodes of the Chuck ToddCast, every Wednesday and Friday, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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