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Missing Souljah
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Missing Souljah

Joe Biden and the ‘persuasion election.’

President Joe Biden speaks to members of the United Steel Workers Union in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 17, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

My ears always perk up when one of my newsletters is mentioned on The Dispatch Podcast. It happened last week when Sarah Isgur was inspired by this one to pose a confounding question.

Why is Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, the candidate who’s had a “Sister Souljah moment” recently?

On the momentous issue of abortion, Trump has risked offending an important element of his base by pivoting toward the center. He’s making a play for swing voters, as preposterous as that sounds after four indictments, two impeachments, and one insurrection.

Shouldn’t the other guy in the race be doing a little of that too?

Biden is wooing swing voters by reminding them of the aforementioned indictments, impeachments, and insurrection, but—God help us—that hasn’t sufficed to hand him a reliable lead in polling. On the contrary, multiple major national surveys have Trump leading him among independent voters. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“The voters that elected Biden in the first place are the center-left voters that liked his centrist policies, not the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren slice of the electorate,” said Lauren Harper Pope, who co-founded a group called WelcomePAC that urges Democrats to make pragmatic, big-tent appeals. “Yet the administration seems to have a fear of talking about things people actually care about if it might offend a small group of ideological activists.” …

The Democratic strategy group Blueprint found in a recent national poll that 52% of voters are concerned that Biden is too liberal, including 61% of independents. Blueprint also analyzed a spate of recent polling to determine which 2020 Biden voters have switched to say they will vote for Trump this year. Among that group, 53% call themselves moderates and 33% identify as conservative; just 14% consider themselves liberals.

It’s awfully hard for a president to shift impressions of his politics three and a half years into his term but a little Souljah-ing could go a long way. Biden could and should denounce the most disruptive miscreants among the pro-Palestinian left, for instance, as they go about alienating 99 percent of the population. And we’re long overdue for executive action on the border, which might antagonize progressive open-borders fanatics but would impress some of the many Latino voters who are keen to see stricter immigration enforcement.

In a virtuous country, Joe Biden wouldn’t need to campaign at all this fall. The fact that Trump is an authoritarian virus in human form infecting the American constitutional order would be enough for undecideds to mount an immune response against him. But we aren’t that country. To win, the president will need to persuade them that his policies are better for them than the alternative’s are. 

I can’t blame him too much for being slow to recognize that, though. It’s been a while since we had a “persuasion election.”

We’ve gotten used to having “base elections” in America. And because we have, the appeal of a “Sister Souljah moment” isn’t as obvious as it should be.

A “base election” is one in which the candidates’ plan for victory depends on maximizing turnout among their respective bases. Every presidential nominee wants to win voters in the middle, of course, but the extreme partisan polarization of modern American politics has left both sides convinced that the key to prevailing lies in juicing enthusiasm among their core voters.

Make your base so excited about your own candidacy and/or so furious at the other side that they’ll crawl over broken glass to vote—that’s a “base election” strategy. Until recently, I would have told you that any election involving Donald Trump will inevitably devolve into a battle o’ the bases: Because Republicans worship him and Democrats consider him an existential threat, both parties’ rank-and-file are destined to mobilize in historic numbers when he’s on the ballot.

Look no further than 2020 for proof, when lackluster geriatric Joe Biden received the most votes of any candidate in American history while Trump himself received the second-most.

Every election where Trump is on the ballot is destined to become a “base election.” Or so I thought.

What’s fascinating about this year’s race, Sarah noted on the podcast, is that for numerous reasons the share of persuadables seems greater than usual. There are a lot of votes in flux, enough to hold both major-party nominees under 43 percent in current five-way polling. Pivoting toward the center could produce quite the windfall in electoral support, making this more of a “persuasion election” despite the hyper-polarization between left and right.

Why are there so many undecideds, though?

Partly it’s because of the historic nature of the campaign. Normally when a president runs for reelection, the race is a straightforward referendum on his first term. When two presidents run for reelection, the race becomes more of a choice between alternatives. The famous question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” requires serious deliberation this time, not just a gut check on whether you’re happy with the incumbent.

Another reason is that the two nominees are less popular than constipation. Former Attorney General Bill Barr recently compared the choice this fall to one between “Russian roulette” and “national suicide,” which is embarrassingly wrong but colorfully captures the degree of enthusiasm many Americans feel about their options. According to a recent YouGov poll, nearly 1 in 5 registered voters views both candidates unfavorably; whichever party does a better job of persuading that group that it’s marginally preferable to the other is likely to win.

As Sarah explained last week, though, the true cause of the “persuasion election” we’re facing is the fact that American politics is smack dab in the middle of an increasingly wild and wooly realignment. It’s well known by now that the college-educated are moving left while the less educated are moving right and that Trump’s populism is enticing some nonwhite working-class voters to consider the GOP for the first time. But lately pollsters have begun to detect another bizarre possibility, that Trump is making inroads with young voters while Biden is locking up votes among the aged.

The deck of electoral cards is being shuffled to an extent not seen in ages such that no one seems to have any firm idea what sort of hand will be dealt to the two parties on Election Day. But it’s a cinch that the many voters who’ve aligned with one side or the other for years only to find themselves wavering now will be more persuadable—by both candidates—than lockstep partisans are. 

Granted, many of those waverers will “come home” and support their traditional party in the end. But the fact that the universe of truly persuadable undecideds is smaller than the polls suggest doesn’t mean it isn’t larger this year than it is in most elections. And I’m not the only one who seems to think so: Consider how two leading lights of the so-called New Right have been behaving lately.

Christopher Rufo is that movement’s best-known anti-woke activist, the man who made critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) culture-war hobby horses among populist Republicans. A few weeks ago, after an outburst of Jew-baiting among certain Very Online populists, Rufo laid down the law: “Kanye-style antisemitism, right-wing identitarianism, online grifting, extreme conspiratorialism, etc. None of these are right on the merits and they are a threat to a functional, popular conservative movement.”

Two weeks later, Sohrab Ahmari published a piece at The New Statesman declaring that, “The new racist right are uniquely dangerous.” Ahmari is an ideological Zelig but a reliable critic of classical liberalism (aka “David French-ism”) who gained populist admirers over the last five years by attacking traditional “conservatarian” priorities. Like Rufo, he now finds himself shocked, shocked to find that some of the post-liberals who joined his political crusade have more sinister ambitions than ridding libraries of “drag queen story hour.”

What unites Rufo and Ahmari, I think, is that they’re both earnest ideologues keen to see their brands of populism make inroads nationally, not trolls with “Pepe” avatars on social media content to fling slurs at ideological enemies. They understand that realignment presents them with a unique opportunity to win over Americans whose own politics are suddenly in flux—and they recognize how much harder that task will become the more right-wing populism is commonly understood to be a movement of racists.

So they’ve seized the opportunity to have a “Sister Souljah moment” with the Very Online right, condemning the fringes of their faction in hopes that the great undecided middle will be more willing to give them a hearing.

If they can do it, and Trump can do it, why can’t Joe Biden?

Biden could do it, of course. But, to answer Sarah’s question, I think he’s risking considerably more political pain by doing so than Trump is.

For starters, Biden is facing more pressure from third parties on his left flank than Trump is on his right flank. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a wild card, admittedly: It’s possible that he’ll pull more fringy anti-vaccine right-wing populists out of Trump’s column than he will anti-establishment left-wing Kennedy-worshippers out of Biden’s. But I doubt it, particularly with RFK himself and some of his (now former) campaign officials demonstrating more antipathy to the current president than to the former one.

Even if Kennedy’s impact on the race is a wash, though, Biden still needs to contend with Cornel West and Jill Stein eating away at his progressive support. West and Stein are combining for 3.1 percent currently in five-way national polling, more than enough to overcome Trump’s 1.7-point overall lead if all of their support went to Biden. Stein and West have also been keen to exploit left-wing grievances over Israel to a degree Kennedy has not, with West recently having called Hamas’ pogrom of October 7 a “counter-terrorist response.”

If Trump had a Tucker Carlson or Candace Owens running independently to his right, babbling about Israel’s “war on Christianity” or whatever, he’d need to be careful about alienating his party’s nuttiest members. But he doesn’t. Of the two of them, it’s Biden who needs to worry most about fringers being siphoned off. If he aims for the center by staging a “Sister Souljah moment” at the left’s expense, he might hemorrhage votes to West or Stein, or both.

There’s another problem. There may be two presidents on the ballot this year but only one is an incumbent.

The “president vs. president” dynamic makes this election more of a choice than usual, as I explained earlier, but that doesn’t mean the candidates are on an equal footing. Data published a few days ago by the New York Times revealed something astonishing: Despite the indictments and impeachments and insurrection, Americans’ views of Trump as president … have grown more positive over time.

In particular, the share that approves of how he handled the economy has risen by 10 points since 2020 while the share that—gulp—approves of his handling of “law and order” has risen by 8.

Public sentiment about ex-presidents routinely turns brighter after they leave office, partly due to political “goldfish brain” setting in among the electorate and partly to those ex-presidents exiting politics and busying themselves with more statesmanlike endeavors. Trump is no ordinary ex-president, needless to say, so it’s surprising to see him benefiting from the same effect. But maybe it shouldn’t be: His improving ratings on the economy are probably due to voters drawing a direct contrast with the high inflation and interest rates of the current Biden era.

That is to say, while this election may be more of a choice than most are, for undecideds it might still be a referendum to some degree on whether they’re better off now than they were four years ago. (Or five years ago, rather; 2020, the year of the pandemic, isn’t being held against Trump for some reason.) And if it is a referendum, Biden might believe that undecideds are less persuadable than they seem; their memories of what they dislike about his administration are fresh while their memories of what they disliked about Trump’s are more distant, and are destined to remain so.

His best play, then, is arguably to run a “base election” strategy by focusing on consolidating the left and hoping that Trump’s sheer loathsome Trumpiness will scare enough undecideds into the Democratic column. Biden might not be able to win over voters who view the election as a referendum—but Trump can lose them.

There’s one more reason the “Sister Souljah moment” won’t work as well for Biden as for Trump. The two parties’ bases aren’t symmetrical in how they identify with their respective nominees. 

That helps explain why I’ve never thought Kennedy posed as much of a threat to Trump as he does to Biden despite his efforts to pander to the right-wing fringe. If you’re the sort of populist who hates vaccines so much that you’d consider supporting RFK over Trump, chances are you’re also the sort of populist who believes that “frazzledrip” is real and “The Storm” is coming.

Trump is your national savior, the man whose return to power will see the forces of darkness cleansed from American life. You’re not going to risk spoiling his resurrection and the right’s supreme victory by giving your vote to Kennedy, no matter how much of a grudge you hold over Operation Warp Speed.

Biden is the polar opposite. Progressives have never identified with him, which is why appeals like this are already necessary with more than six months still to go until Election Day:

A month before the 2020 election, Pew asked Americans whether they considered their ballot to be a vote “for” the candidate they preferred or “against” the candidate they did not. Trump supporters overwhelmingly said their vote was a vote for Trump, 71-29. Biden supporters overwhelmingly said their vote was a vote against Trump, 36-63.

Democrats aren’t remotely as invested emotionally in their guy as Republicans are in theirs. That’s left progressives feeling restless for much of Biden’s presidency, especially lately in light of his support for Israel, and probably fatigued at the thought of having to rally this fall in historic numbers to support the lesser of two evils again. Biden can’t take them for granted the way comparatively loyal right-wing constituencies—pro-lifers, hawks, “Haley conservatives”—can be taken for granted by Trump.

After all, unlike those right-wing constituencies, progressives have proved that they’re willing to hand the White House to the other party if they don’t get their way.

Say the words “Ralph Nader” to an Al Gore voter or “Jill Stein” to a Hillary Clinton voter and the look on their face will tell you how seriously mainstream Democrats take the prospect of left-wing discontent costing them a national election. The fact that Gore’s and Clinton’s defeats helped elect Democrats’ two least favorite Republicans of the past 50 years would be enough to scare them into lining up behind Biden, one might think, but January 6 and multiple criminal trials and dark mutterings about “retribution” weren’t enough to scare Republican primary voters into backing Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley, were they?

American voters don’t always behave rationally even in the best of times. During a wild and wooly realignment, when you might hear far-left slogans being chanted at Trump rallies, it’s anyone’s guess how self-destructive they might be.

So go figure that Joe Biden would opt to play it safe by eschewing any major “Sister Souljah moments” and staying on his base’s good side. If centrists are open to reelecting a coup-plotting civic arsonist because the very strong economy under Biden doesn’t quite measure up to their fondest memories of the Trump economy circa 2019, there’s only so much one can say to reason with them. Things would be different in a more virtuous country, but, well, you know.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.