WASHINGTON — While President Joe Biden increasingly rallies his base with fiery rhetoric casting Donald Trump as the gravest threat American democracy has ever faced, his top aides privately say they’re still wrestling with the right pitch to other key voters about Trump, his likely 2024 opponent.
It’s a delicate balance, Biden aides say: warning those voters about what the president believes a Trump return to the Oval Office would be like, but not so much they are turned off or tune out. To try to find the right tone, aides said, they’re leaning on several years of data Biden’s team has gathered tracking voter sentiment.
A senior Biden adviser said the question they’re grappling with is: “How do we think about the calibration on Trump?”
“Because that’s a very complicated thing to understand,” the adviser said. “People generally have their opinions about him. But what is it that’s going to lead people to be tuned in to taking action, as opposed to being tuned out because they don’t want to deal with him?”
NBC News' spoke with a dozen White House, campaign and Democratic officials to get a picture of the Biden campaign’s emerging strategy.
In interviews, Biden’s top advisers present a dynamic they acknowledge may sound implausible to allies and activists worried about what they see as a lack of urgency from the Biden campaign amid polling that shows Trump tied or leading in a general election matchup. But, the Biden advisers say, many of the voters they’re most focused on right now — Democrats who are disengaged with politics, independents and some Republicans — are not yet ready, or are perhaps even unwilling, to consider Trump’s being on the ballot for a third election in a row.
The dilemma is evident in how the current phase of Biden’s re-election campaign is unfolding. Most of his public events and paid advertising barely mention Trump. Yet when the cameras aren’t rolling and he’s speaking to loyal Democrats and donors, Biden is withering in his criticism of the former president.
“Let me be clear: Donald Trump poses many threats to the country, from the right to choose to civil rights to voting rights to America’s standing in the world,” he said at a closed-door fundraiser Tuesday. “The greatest threat Trump poses is to our democracy. Because if we lose, we lose everything.”
Biden’s campaign and even at times his White House have also been quick to respond to some of Trump’s most controversial rhetoric on the campaign trail. Over the weekend, the campaign issued a statement saying Trump had “parroted Adolf Hitler” when he accused immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country.”
By contrast, Biden’s public events around the country and his campaign message on the airwaves focus mostly on what he sees as his economic accomplishments. The campaign’s $25 million spending blitz this fall continues to focus on topics like Biden’s middle-class upbringing, his plan to reduce the price of prescription drugs and his support for Black-owned small businesses. On Wednesday in Milwaukee, Biden targeted Wisconsin’s Republican senator, Ron Johnson, rather than Trump, with criticism of his legislative record.
Though some Democrats would prefer the Biden campaign to take a far more aggressive approach to Trump right now and have urged the president and his aides to do so, Biden advisers argue there’s been another benefit in holding back amid the Republican primary campaign. The GOP debates haven’t featured Trump, but they have provided the Biden campaign opportunities to build a trove of video clips of the other Republican candidates criticizing Trump over issues such as the growth of the national debt, Biden aides said. The Biden campaign plans to highlight those moments in the coming months in messaging that targets Republican-leaning independents, the aides said.
A senior campaign official said two groups of voters are of particular concern based on internal research. The first falls into a group that Biden aides have labeled “persuade to participate.” They had been part of what the aides call the Biden coalition — African Americans, young voters and suburban women — who are tuning out the news and are averse to political discussion at a tumultuous period for the country.
Biden aides don’t expect those voters to vote for Trump but fear they may not vote at all, the senior campaign official said.
The second group of voters is more independent, the official said, in that they supported Trump in 2020 but voted for Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterms and in other off-year and special elections. Those voters, in contrast to the first group, are much more engaged in the political process and more open to Biden on the issues — just not yet to Biden himself, the official said.
Biden’s team is banking on winning over both groups — especially when they’re presented with a choice between Biden and Trump. The challenge for the Biden campaign at the moment, though, is that none of those voters wants to be faced with that choice right now, aides say. They point to public polling that shows that a substantial percentage of voters, even Republicans, think someone other than Trump will be the GOP nominee — a view they don’t yet share themselves.
It’s a calculated gamble by the campaign. Typically, incumbents work quickly to define opponents with deluges of attacks just as they are emerging from their own bruising primaries and often lack resources to defend themselves. But Trump is the one holding campaign events focused as much on attacking Biden — and his family — as on attacking his GOP foes.
“We have a really unique situation here, which is we have a current president and a former president running against each other,” a second senior Biden campaign official said. “It’s hard to draw comparisons of what we’ve done in the past when you have that kind of a situation.”
“In 2020, people really had a clear vision of who Trump was, and so we needed to show them who Biden was,” the official added. “Now, Biden’s been much more in the news than Trump. So [our goal is] returning our focus to reminding people who Trump is and what Trump would represent in the future.”
Biden campaign officials said they’ve also found through their research on voter sentiment that at a time of heightened political polarization and cynicism, the best way to sway certain voters is “communicating on issue first and electoral second,” the senior Biden adviser said.
The adviser said that in outreach to young voters on college campuses, for instance, the data shows talking about issues such as climate change is more likely to break through than outreach focused on the presidential election.
Campaign aides say that is especially true among perhaps the most important voting group in 2024: women.
The Biden adviser described female voters as typically “the non-conflict glue of their families and of their communities.”
“They have to be friends with the random mom and dad of the kid that their kid plays with,” the adviser said. “So in that context, they do not want to engage in politics, because that is conflict.”
Based on work around abortion in the midterms and other local races, Biden campaign officials say Democrats have been successful not by framing an election first and foremost as a choice between candidates but by communicating what types of issues are at stake — “in ways that make it much more about rights and about ownership, standing up for yourself and empowering your daughters and wanting your grandkids to have freedoms that you had,” the Biden adviser said.
“That is a different way to communicate than to say Joe Biden supports your reproductive freedom and Donald Trump doesn’t.”