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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden listens.
One Michigan organizer for progressive causes said the challenge for Biden’s candidacy has been most pronounced among some Black men, Arab Americans and younger voters. Paul Sancya/AP

Biden’s Battleground Struggles Could Get Even Worse

State-level operatives in swing states are nervously awaiting a Trump ad blitz and say Biden’s not doing them any favors.

One Michigan organizer for progressive causes said the challenge for Biden’s candidacy has been most pronounced among some Black men, Arab Americans and younger voters. Paul Sancya/AP

Joe Biden’s apparent victory — for now — over calls to step aside from the presidential race should give him the space and time to refocus attention on the general election.

He might not like what he finds.

Voter-facing organizers and operatives already at work on the ground across the country told NOTUS this week that the ongoing chaos in the national Democratic Party has made an already narrow path for Biden even narrower in the all-important battleground states.

“It’s tough; we all thought Biden was going to rev up his campaign through the summer and get out to voters. The debate kind of derailed that,” said a veteran progressive operative in Pennsylvania, not directly allied with Democrats but working on organizing efforts to deny Trump a win in the state.

Polling has shifted by a small but significant margin in Trump’s favor since the debate. After being effectively tied with Trump in national polls at the end of June, according to an aggregate of surveys compiled by 538, the president now trails his opponent by about 2 percentage points.

Some swing state polling offers an even more pessimistic assessment of Biden’s standing. One survey of Wisconsin voters released Tuesday found the incumbent president trailing Trump by 6 percentage points, 44% to 38%, with third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy drawing 9% support.

Scott Holiday is political director at Detroit Action, a left-leaning advocacy group that has already begun voter education programs for Democratic-base voters across Michigan, most recently highlighting moves by the Supreme Court and conservative campaign promises. Now, a few weeks into these sessions, “deep divides” over the top of the Democratic ticket have come up “organically” in post-debate conversations with voters, Holiday said. The challenge has been most pronounced among some Black men, Arab Americans and younger voters, he said.

“They all had misgivings about Biden for different reasons, and I think that his performance in the debate and his performance afterwards has enshrined the notion that he’s not up to the job,” he said. “That is super not helpful.”

Holiday wants progressive causes to win in Michigan and Trump to lose everywhere. Detroit Action’s approach this year will be to “create a space where people can engage with issues” rather than a specific candidate.

People like Holiday, who have been building out voter contact infrastructure, base persuasion programs and turnout operations, have been pushing through tough terrain all year, state-level Democratic operatives say. In recent weeks, it’s become even more of a slog. Some are optimistic that the prospect of a total conservative victory will awaken a weary base. Others are skeptical that Democrats can pull a good year out of weeks of bad headlines.

But all of them are adjusting their strategies to a world where Biden may be a drag rather than a boon to their efforts.

The coming months could bring a dynamic shift to the battleground states. AdImpact, a firm that tracks political ad spending, found that the Biden campaign invested more than $80 million in ads from April through June, with a supporting super PAC chipping in another $27 million. The firm found that the two entities were the top two spenders during the three-month period, with only a pair of Trump-supporting super PACs making the top five. Those two groups spent only $40 million between them over the same period.

But political strategists say it’s only a matter of time before Trump and his allies start to close that gap. One super PAC backing Trump is set to launch a $60 million ad campaign later this month, according to Politico. Some observers have suggested the very public Democratic fretting over Biden’s fitness gives Trump ready-made lines of attack on the president.

The Pennsylvania operative said Biden was “running a good campaign” but was still dealing with polls showing many voters don’t want either choice. The debate was “a watershed moment,” the operative said, which they added will become apparent once the Democrats lose their monopoly on big advertising spending.

“Once that evens out, I think we’re fucked,” the operative said.

The party view is different. For one, Democrats wonder how much Trump and his allies can close the ad gap, citing the hundreds of millions of dollars Biden and allied groups have made in reservations for the fall. And even if Trump does run more ads, they say, he’ll be playing catch-up, trying to cram an entire campaign’s worth of messages into just a few months.

“Donald Trump has spent all cycle suckering small-dollar donors into giving their hard-earned money to pay off his legal fees and spending virtually nothing talking to actual voters, while our campaign has remained focused on meeting voters where they are and engaging on the issues that matter to them,” said Sarafina Chitika, Biden campaign spokesperson. “No amount of eleventh-hour catch-up changes the fact that Trump is a convicted felon and his Project 2025 agenda is wildly unpopular with the American people — voters will remind him of that this November.”

President Joe Biden waves to the crowd with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
One survey of Wisconsin voters released Tuesday found the incumbent president trailing Trump by 6 percentage points. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Battleground Democratic strategists said that Biden’s dispiriting debate performance and the subsequent inner-party argument about whether he should continue as the nominee did affect party operatives, at least emotionally. But they added that they think the events of this week have made it clear that the president will continue in the race, shifting the party’s attention once again to trying to beat Trump.

“It was certainly felt on the ground, but we are on the other side of that now,” said Thad Nation, a Democratic strategist based in Wisconsin.

The Biden campaign, Nation continued, has steadily built its operation in the state, giving it an advantage in the fall.

“The structural advantage is still the same,” the strategist said. “In that, they are very well organized, very well staffed, with 40-plus offices around the state, people everywhere. And the Trump campaign has nothing. That hasn’t changed.”

The message hasn’t changed for groups eager to turn out the same voters Democrats are after — but the delivery has started to shift, in some cases, away from the presidential race. In North Carolina, the nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause rallies voters to support voting rights in a state where a Republican legislative supermajority and GOP-led state Supreme Court have secured strong partisan gerrymanders and strict new voter ID requirements. The group is ramping up this summer with a series of voter contact efforts the group has never done before.

“We are doing music festivals for the first time, hosting concerts all across the state to try to motivate and energize youth voters who are very discouraged with the top of the ticket but know very little about what else is on the line throughout the ballot,” said Sailor Jones, Common Cause’s associate director.

That message resonates with other audiences, too, Jones went on.

“I think people are really clamoring for something to fight for,” he said. The debate and polling “have kind of dominated the horse race conversation on social media and in the media,” but his organizers are finding success breaking through by focusing on “what’s really on the ballot” in North Carolina.

Holiday, the Michigan operative, said that as the panic continues, the wisest course is to plow ahead with the president. His “Political with a capital P self” worried that a big change at the top of the ticket could create fresh chaos for Democrats at the basic campaign infrastructure level, which would be bad for battleground state operatives.

“There are just a lot of question marks that make me uncomfortable with changing the nominee, regardless of how problematic Biden is,” he said. “I should say, ‘can be.’ I shouldn’t say, ‘is.’”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Alex Roarty are reporters at NOTUS.